DENVER — For the county’s Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson, it’s a simple matter of fairness.
“I think everyone should be able to get married, just like everyone should be able to get a ballot to vote,” Johnson said on the steps of the state Capitol, brightly colored signs crowding the scene behind her.
She was speaking at a celebratory rally marking the launch of the Why Marriage Matters campaign, a grassroots effort spearheaded by gay-rights groups One Colorado and Freedom to Marry and by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Roughly 200 supporters lined up on the steps behind the speakers and on the stones in front of them, cheering and nodding their heads.
The new marriage campaign comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed by nine gay Colorado couples against Clerk Johnson and Governor John Hickenlooper seeking to overturn the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage. Johnson and Hickenlooper are strong supporters of gay-rights, including the right to marry. But the plaintiffs live in Denver and Johnson, hewing to the state’s gay marriage ban refused their requests for licenses.
Her refusal came last month, only weeks after clerks in New Mexico successfully banded together and began granting marriage licenses to gay couples, sparking a kind of velvet revolution that that state’s Supreme Court stamped with approval in December.
Johnson said she thought about engaging in an act of civil disobedience.
“Yes, it entered my mind. I thought about it for a minute,” she said, rolling out her words slowly. “People come into my office to get married. It’s a happy office. There are a lot of benefits that come with state-sanctioned marriage. I think everyone has an equal right to those benefits.”
The Colorado ban on same-sex marriage was set into the Constitution by popular vote in 2006. There is no constitutional ban on gay marriage in New Mexico, which made the step to legalize gay marriage there less complicated. Challenges to state constitutional bans in Utah and Oklahoma are scheduled to be heard next month by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has not been viewed as a traditionally friendly court to gay rights. The new Colorado case may be joined to those cases.
OneColorado Director Dave Montez lauded Johnson in his remarks at the rally.
“It was one of the most difficult decisions of her career,” he said. “But she followed through on her oath to uphold the law and allow this important case to move forward. I hope that when the freedom to marry has been achieved for all Coloradans, that all clerks around the state will have the same respect for the law that Debra Johnson has shown.”
The groups behind the effort launched today are describing it as an “educational campaign.” The idea is to motivate gay couples and their supporters to tell their stories around the state and detail why marriage matters in everyday family life — in the so-called “kitchen table matters” such as taxes, hospital visits and child care.
The campaign comes as public and legal opinions around the country are speeding toward full acceptance of gay marriage and equality.
Last year, Colorado lawmakers passed a same-sex civil unions bill after similar attempts failed in previous sessions. Statewide polls then and now show large majority support for civil unions and growing support for gay marriage. A year ago, left-leaning Public Policy Polling found Coloradans supported the civil unions bill by a 50 to 38 spread and that they supported gay marriage 51 to 43. The pollsters found that Colorado voters under 30 years old favored gay marriage rights by a 74 to 17 point spread.
“Last year, we were talking about civil unions,” said Senator Pat Steadman, who sponsored last year’s bill. “In all of the debate around the bill, I never said that was the end game. It is a separate and unequal solution.”
He said the state’s “separate and unequal” treatment of gay citizens won’t stand for long, that lawmakers, citizens or justices or all three will take action.
“Maybe it will happen in this building,” he said, waving up toward the balcony, where lawmaker-supporters waved back. “Maybe at the ballot box, maybe at the Court of Appeals — somewhere, a remedy is coming. It’s time for the freedom to marry and everybody knows it.