Colorado civil unions supporters demand full House vote

DENVER– “Let them vote! Let them vote!” chanted the crowd gathered on the west steps of the capitol here this morning, urging Republican House leaders to bring a controversial civil unions bill to the floor for consideration.

The legislation, Senate Bill 2, has passed the Senate and two crucial House committees. It is scheduled to be heard at 2 p.m. this afternoon in the House Appropriations committee, its last committee hurdle and one that sponsors say it is all but guaranteed to clear. But the legislative session is scheduled to end tomorrow and Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Colorado Springs, oppose the bill and have suggested it may not make it to the floor before the session ends. McNulty has said that, if it does die, the bill woill have been a casualty of the schedule and of the bad timing of its sponsors.

The bill, sponsored by Denver Democrats Pat Steadman in the Senate and Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino in the House, would grant legal relationship recognition to same-sex couples in the state, conferring benefits and shoring up parenting and partnership responsibilities before the law.

In a state that is home to anti-gay rights Christian mega-organization Focus on the Family and that has passed constitutional amendments barring both gay marriage and laws that would protect gay people from discrimination, the civil unions bill would bestow no small measure of official legitimacy and acceptance to a long-targeted minority group.

For Republicans, the bill is a hot potato in an election year that has seen Stephens, for example, engage in an intense El Paso County primary, where social issues have featured prominently in the campaigning.

“This bill deserves an up or down vote, Mr Speaker,” Brad Clark, executive director of gay-rights group One Colorado said from the capitol steps. “It deserves a fair hearing. Nothing less. My mom always said ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way.’ Well, Mr Speaker, there’s clearly a will for this bill to be heard. Now show us the way.”

Governor John Hickenlooper’s chief legal counsel, Jack Finlaw, told the crowd the governor is closely watching the progress of the bill.

“The governor believes this is an historic day on which we’ll embrace equality for all Coloradans,” he said. “He expects House leaders to take the bill to the floor for a full and fair debate. The governor is looking forward to signing the bill in a few days.”

Lobbying on both sides of the bill has been intense ever since Steadman first introduced it in 2011 and those efforts seem to be culminating today.

The rally at the capitol this morning drew perhaps the largest crowd of any of the strictly pro-civil unions event here yet.

Despite the hectic legislative schedule, lawmakers lined up on the steps behind the speakers. Easily more than a hundred activists waved banners and members of the media wandered through the crowd for a half hour after the official event wrapped. At one point, House members climbed out of the windows of the chamber onto the deck above the rally and waved to the crowd.

Republican lawmakers have said they have received thousands of postcards and emails from Christian groups, including Catholic parishioners, imploring them to vote against the bill or stall it through procedural tactics. Speaker McNulty said his voice mail box fills with comments by the hour.

Mario Nicolas, a high-profile Republican attorney in the state and the spokesperson for pro-civil unions Republican coalition Coloradans for Freedom, asked the crowd today to thank Republican lawmakers who have supported the bill in the face of strong opposition. He asked in particular for supporters to contact Rep. B.J. Nikkel, the Republican from Loveland who cast the deciding vote in a crucial Judicial Committee hearing last week to advance the bill.

“I’ve known her for ten years. We worked for Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave together,” he said, referring to the arch social conservative 4th District representative voted out of office in 2008. “What [Nikkel] did was one of the most courageous things I’ve seen in my life in government. And I’ve worked in government or around government for the last two decades. That took courage. That took special strength of the heart.

“[Nikkel] has friends who will now denounce her. She has people who will put her face on a van to drive around and say awful things about her. People who are calling her. People who are attacking her at her place of worship. I ask you all to call Rep. Nikkel and say something to her that says ‘You are one of the most courageous woman I know and what you did this legislative session is one of the most courageous things I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.”

Nicolais said he was confident that House leaders would bring the bill to the floor.

“They have promised a fair hearing and so far we have been moving along that path… Just as Speaker McNulty has said, we are moving along with this bill with no special treatment. And I think that’s important for all of us who support this bill to understand. This bill doesn’t need special treatment to pass. It just needs to be heard, just like any other bill.”

A truck plastered with Nikkel’s name above slogans about her supporting gay rights cruised the streets around the capitol and parked a block from the Legislative Services Building where the Appropriations Committee meeting was being held.

“I heard it’s some version of Operation Rescue’s [anti-abortion] Truth Truck,” said Jace Woodrum, spokesperson for One Colorado. “It’s a form of intimidation aimed at Republican lawmakers. It’s sad.”

[ Image: (top) One Colorado’s Jace Woodrum addresses the crowd (Ladd Bosworth); (bottom) the anti-Nikkel “truth truck.” (Tomasic) ]