Colorado civil unions battle reanimated old-school Christian right

DENVER– Opposition to a gay-rights civil unions bill defeated here last month was directed in large part by Colorado Springs-based evangelical empire Focus on the Family and the Colorado Catholic Conference. The Christian-right campaign, however, also reenergized a leading anti-gay rights activist organization of the 1990s, influential rough-and-tumble group Colorado for Family Values.

“If the homosexual lobby gets their way, traditional families will be a thing of the past,” the group warned supporters in the last days of the legislative session, re-purposing the same kind of intense rhetoric that marked the campaign the group famously waged in 1992 to pass Amendment 2, which banned laws protecting LGBT Coloradans as a class against discrimination. The amendment, ruled unconstitutional in 1996 by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the harsh campaign that promoted it inflamed civil rights groups around the country and spurred them to organize a national economic boycott of the “hate state.”

The strategies developed for the Amendment 2 campaign, later dubbed “the Colorado Model” at anti-gay rights conferences, set the bar for like-minded organizations around the country. As detailed in a report entitled “Resisting the Rainbow (pdf)” released last month by Political Research Associates, the Amendment 2 campaign centered on rhetoric that portrayed gay people as a threat to mainstream America and that likened gay rights to affirmative action-like “special rights” that bestowed unfair advantage.

The series of television ads created in-house for the campaign by Colorado for Family Values made perhaps the most lasting impression. The rough-cut works featured wide-black censor bars over scantily clad men marching in Pride parades, the jumpy documentary-style video footage adapted from “The Gay Agenda,” a movie released earlier that year by the Family Research Council.

“Gays have special rights,” begins one of the ads in a clipped voice-over as horror-movie music sounds and the screen flashes with images of shirtless men riding floats and gay couples kissing. “School kids are taught this lifestyle is healthy and normal — by law. Do we want to protect our children? Yes we do! Vote yes on 2.” The ad ends with footage of a child crying as it moves through a parade crowd.

Twenty years and multiple evolutions in leadership later, Colorado for Family Values came out against civil unions with the same aggressive winner-take-all approach.

In releases and blog posts, the group warned that the civil unions bill was a threat being pushed by fringe elements.

“This dangerous legislation is a the [sic] radical homosexual lobby’s attempt to introduce homosexual marriage in Colorado… This dangerous legislation continues to advance,” the group wrote on May 4, just three days before the regular legislative session would end.

After the bill was defeated, Colorado for Family Values President Luther Benson, a Colorado Springs real estate agent, celebrated with a release hitting on many of the themes pushed by the group twenty years earlier.

“From the start, the language in the so-called ‘civil unions’ bill made it obvious that this was an attempt at government-mandated special rights for public affirmation of homosexual marriage. Colorado for Family Values members and supporters across Colorado saw through the deception and rallied enough local support, at just the right time, to ensure common decency prevailed.”

Targeting the leaders

Benson’s group also appears to have spearheaded the drive among grassroots conservatives to pressure House Speaker Frank McNulty to kill the civil unions bill through procedural tactics when it became clear the bill had gained bipartisan majority support in both chambers at the capitol.

That McNulty did kill the bill through such tactics twice, in the regular and in a special legislative session, shocked most politics watchers in the state on the right and the left.

Over the course of months, McNulty, who opposes civil unions, had seemed either overly confident the bill would be killed by House GOP-controlled committees or resolved not to overly interfere in the fate of the controversial but popular bill. He didn’t assign it to the State Affairs “kill committee” stacked with hard-line social conservatives. He sent it instead to the same committee that voted it down in 2011, the Judiciary Committee. This year, however, Judiciary passed the bill with the vote of Loveland Republican member B.J. Nikkel. In a rush, the bill then passed two more House committees, winning one crucial GOP vote in each and lining up in the process at least three sure Republican votes for when the bill arrived on the House floor– more than enough votes given that Democrats supported the bill unanimously and that Republicans enjoyed a mere one-seat majority in the chamber.

Opposition to civil unions went into high gear. In the five days between the Judiciary Committee vote and the end of the session, the network of organizations opposed to civil unions sent what Brad Clark, executive director at gay-rights group One Colorado, described to the Independent as an “avalanche” of blog postings and email alerts.

“If you care about preserving one-man, one-woman marriage, please contact your members of the House of Representatives today!” wrote CitizenLink, the political arm of Focus on the Family.

The Colorado Catholic Conference argued its view that the “key flaw” with civil unions is that they “create a parallel structure to marriage… [and] traditional marriage is the cornerstone of our society that exists for the benefit of children and the protection of women.”

Conservative group Right Turn Colorado reposted an alert sent out by a lobbying organization called the Christian Family Alliance. That group’s alert directly echoed language posted by Colorado for Family Values and referred supporters to a Colorado for Family Values web petition.

“The language contained in SB12-002 proves that this so-called ‘civil unions’ bill is really homosexual marriage by another name,” wrote Christian Family Alliance Director Chris McIntire on Thursday, May 3, the day of the key Judiciary Committee hearing.

“[T]he radical homosexual lobby is ignoring the will of Colorado voters… trying to force their homosexual agenda on Colorado citizens…. Our friends at Colorado for Family Values have created an [online] form that allows you to send a message directly to legislators.”

By the next day, however, Colorado for Family Values had already switched tactics. No longer was the group asking supporters to contact legislators or their representatives or even primarily members of committees. Its main focus had turned to McNulty and House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, Republicans who the group was informing supporters still had the power to kill the bill, even as the final hours of the legislative session ticked away and lawmaker support for civil unions continued to mount.

“This dangerous legislation,” it wrote in its dispatch that day, “has passed the Colorado Senate and has passed through both the Judiciary Committee and the Finance Committee… Speaker of the House Frank McNulty and House Majority Leader Amy Stephens have the ability to prevent SB12-002 from becoming law, yet have refused to take action…

“Please contact Speaker of the House Frank McNulty and House Majority Leader Amy Stephens and ask them to STOP SB12-002 (Civil Unions) now.”

The post included phone numbers for McNulty and Stephens.

Shifting McNulty

Only two days earlier, as the Denver Post reported recently, McNulty had privately signaled to Gov. John Hickenlooper concession that the bill’s sponsors, Denver lawmakers Pat Steadman and Mark Ferrandino, had been successful in lining up the votes they needed to pass the bill. McNulty’s concern at the time was only to win a promise from the governor that the signing ceremony at which the bill would become law would be no showy or triumphalist affair.

Similarly, as Nikkel signaled her likely support for the bill that week, McNulty didn’t attempt to “talk her out of it,” as she put it. He also brushed off a request made by social conservative Loveland Sen. Kevin Lundberg to replace Nikkel on the Judiciary Committee with a hard-line member of the caucus. McNulty told Lundberg replacing Nikkel would be “inappropriate.”

Early the next week, however, McNulty made Colorado history by leading an unprecedented showdown on the House floor, angrily wielding the gavel to silence debate, orchestrating a filibuster and then walking away from the chamber during a two-hour recess, running out the clock to keep the civil unions bill from reaching the floor and killing dozens of other bills in the process.

McNulty said that, in the last days of the session, callers jammed his voicemail every hour with messages urging him to kill the bill. Insiders had expressed fear to McNulty that the base might “totally walk on us.” In Colorado, that base includes a powerful Christian-right voting bloc fueled by the state’s outsized network of activist religious organizations like Focus on the Family and Colorado for Family Values.

Indeed, at one point in advance of the special legislative session called by Hickenlooper to deal with the most significant bills that died the night of the showdown, Focus on the Family and the Catholic Church made clear that they had linked organizational efforts to oppose the civil unions bill. CitizenLink and the Colorado Catholic Conference on May 11 and 12 sent out the same, identically worded, alert to supporters announcing a “Rally & Prayer for Marriage” scheduled for May 15.

“We are asking all people of good will who support marriage between one man and one woman to come to the Capitol… Marriage between one man and one woman is the cornerstone of our society.” (Click on the image to view an enlarged version.)

Screaming loud

After the bill was defeated, McNulty’s public posture toward it altered notably. In speaking to reporters and at the rally promoted by CitizenLink and the Catholic Conference, “civil union” had turned into “gay marriage.”

“Attacks on family, attacks on marriage continue even as we stand here in front of the state capitol and even as we fight to protect those values that we hold so dear,” McNulty told the roughly 300 rally attendees. “Scream loud and let Gov. John Hickenlooper know that family matters and traditional marriage matters.”

McNulty told reporters that the governor was pushing gay marriage on Colorado. The intensity of the rhetoric and accusations seemed out of step with public opinion on the state’s moderate governor and on gay rights. “Political professionals” told the Denver Post that McNulty’s attempt to “paint Hickenlooper as a divisive liberal” was a risky move.

University of Denver Law Professor Kristian Miccio, who teaches courses on abuse and state accountability, told the Colorado Independent last year that campaigns against gay rights characterized by references to nefarious agendas and threats to families have lost a key advantage. She said past campaigns like those waged by groups like Colorado for Family Values benefited from a “shock of the new” effect. That is, the early campaigns against gay rights were essentially the first campaigns about gay rights.

“They were an aggressive introduction for most Coloradans to the idea, let’s just put it that way,” she said. “Public opinion has moved considerably in the last years in favor of gay rights… but are those early votes against gay rights even a fair measure of where opinion was at the time? I’m not sure.”

She suggested that, beyond activist Christian-right circles, Colorado for Family Values-style messaging, which posits a radical fringe set against a mainstream majority, may have an ironic effect in 2012 because conceptions of what constitutes “radical” and “mainstream” have evolved.

Pro-gay groups do much work now in exploding negative stereotypes and they play a large role in shaping the national conversation about gay rights. What’s more, upwards of 70 percent of Coloradans have come to support greater LGBT relationship recognition, and even self-identifying Christians believe anti-gay messages do more harm than good.

Afterlives

Colorado for Family Values moved offstage after the Supreme Court ruled against Amendment 2. The group’s successful executive director, Kevin Tebedo, became a liability after being increasingly linked to the anti-government Patriot Movement, which sees the federal government as a sort of exploitative corporation. Tebedo resigned and donations fell off.

By 2005, however, the original group with new members was fundraising again ahead of the successful 2006 campaign that passed Amendment 43, defining marriage in the state as a relationship between one man and one woman, and that defeated Referendum I, which would have established civil unions for same-sex couples.

According to tax forms, Colorado for Family Values raised $60,000 in 2005, yet by 2010, it again seemed to be lying low, raising a mere $12,000. Although its most recent tax returns are as yet unavailable for review, the drive to pass state civil unions legislation over the past two years has clearly re-energized the group.

In a similar way, the main artifact of the group’s original achievement, Amendment 2, enjoyed its own variety of “reanimation” this year.

A Senate resolution, SCR12-001, sponsored by the same openly gay members of the legislature who sponsored the civil unions bill, Denver Democrats Steadman and Ferrandino, aimed to remove unconstitutional provisions from Colorado’s infamously cluttered constitution. Amendment 2 was one of the provisions slated for deletion.

During the regular legislative session, the GOP-controlled Judicial Committee passed the resolution nine votes to two votes on the same fraught day it passed the civil unions bill. The resolution was endorsed by conservative Secretary of State Scott Gessler, whose spokesperson Rich Coolidge testified in its favor. The resolution won “ayes” from four Republican members of the committee, including conservative stalwarts such as Colorado Springs Reps Bob Gardner and Mark Waller.

But the resolution, which died as part of collateral damage incurred the night of the civil unions showdown in the House, had come to the attention of the conservative groups placed on high alert that week. The Catholic Conference, Right Turn Colorado and an anonymous group called Don’t Forget the Facts Colorado pushed the idea that keeping the provision on the books offered some measure of protection against future civil unions legislation and against infringements on religious liberties.

“The gay lobby in Denver is counting on passing this [resolution] which will go on the ballot in November,” the Catholic Conference wrote in an alert. “[It] gives them cover. Everything is under the disguise of just ‘cleaning up’ miscellaneous old and now ‘obsolete bills’ — even if they are amendments to our state constitution voted on and passed by the people of Colorado.

“When the [resolution] passes it will give them an even better chance for passage of civil unions legislation in the 2012- 2013 session.”

Don’t Forget the Facts erroneously told readers the resolution would “repeal” Amendment 2 and force Coloradans to act against their religious convictions:

“Recall 199[2] when Colorado voters decided not to classify GLBT as a protected ‘minority’. This will repeal that. Even if you don’t particularly care about GBLT agenda or lifestyle, do you really want a pastor who is against this lifestyle to be forced to counsel or perform a legal ceremony to this sort of couple else be found as discriminating? This crosses the boundaries of faith such that those for traditional values / Biblical values will be forced to forego [sic] their religious convictions or be accused of discrimination akin to racial discrimination.”

Despite the bipartisan support demonstrated a week earlier, the resolution was voted down during the special session in McNulty’s “kill committee.”

Ferrandino told reporters later that the Republican base was in effect controlling the legislature by directing the actions of McNulty.

“The vote [on the resolution] is not actually injurious,” he said, comparing it to the vote to kill civil unions. “This time, McNulty’s minions settled for being gratuitously offensive.”

[ Images: Video stills from Colorado for Family Values 1992 Amendment 2 campaign. ]

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