MLK-inspired Senate civil rights debate marked by 21st-century disconnect

DENVER — “Yesterday we marched to celebrate equality,” said Senator Jessie Ulibarri, an openly gay Democrat from Commerce City, on the floor of the chamber. “And standing here today, it makes me pretty sad to be talking about separate and unequal again.”

It was the day after Martin Luther King Day and it was marked in the Senate by an hour-long debate over a bill brought by another openly gay senator, Pat Steadman, a Democrat from Denver, that would allow same-sex couples whose marriages have been recognized by the federal government, to file joint tax returns in Colorado. Colorado presently hosts same-sex civil unions but a state constitutional amendment reserves marriage for one-man-one-woman couples.

Steadman’s bill would amend Colorado’s tax code. The rewrite would make it explicit that any two individuals who file jointly at the federal level may do the same at the state level and would see the code refer to “individuals” or “spouses” instead of “husbands” or “wives.”

Opponents argued Steadman was mounting an attack on traditional marriage. They said the bill flew in the face of the will of Colorado voters, who in 2006 passed the one-man-one-woman marriage amendment.

“You will not redefine marriage, and strike marriage, and strike the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ from state statue anywhere you can as a gratuitous attack on the institution of marriage,” said Senator Ted Harvey, a Highlands Ranch Republican.

He proposed an alternative approach, one recently made law in Wisconsin, which would create a discrete filing status for same-sex couples and that would require them to file a new form that “un-joins” their federal filings so that they could file their state taxes separate from one another.

Steadman seemed to take a kind of spiritual deep breath, collecting himself, in responding to Harvey’s proposal — the context being the “spiritual breath” Martin Luther King seemed to suck in and slowly exhale for the United States in the 1960s.

“[This amendment] is sort of like saying we want to have a special disadvantage and inconvenience for one class of taxpayers,” said Steadman, his eyes scanning the rafters. “Why? Because of disfavor to the affected group is all I can come up with. That’s sort of like going back to the days of establishing separate restrooms or water fountains for different classes of citizens.”

You can see an excerpt of the back and forth here:

The Senate rejected Harvey’s amendment and Steadman’s bill, SB-19, passed on a party-line vote. The debate continued in a different form, however, as senators turned their attention to a ceremonial resolution to honor Martin Luther King.

“It seems sort of fitting that this is how we honor the man,” Steadman said, “by gathering first in a public place and exercising our first amendment rights of association, assembly and speech and that we end here in the seat of government, in the civic center, bringing our grievances to light so that government may address them.”

He spoke about King’s fight against state-sanctioned segregation and how, in the face of tremendous resistance, he succeeded in changing written and unwritten laws in American life.

Harvey then took the floor, also commending King, highlighting the Christian anti-slavery civil rights history that King had taken forward.

“As I pored over the [letter’s] contents, I was reminded of Dr. King’s generational ties to the church,” he said. “Can we properly honor Dr. King without honoring the principals and ideals that inspire him?”

He then read an excerpt of King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

[blockquote]One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’ Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law… Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.[/blockquote]

On the floor, lungs filled, sets of eyes scanned the rafters.