A Colorado proposal to allow civil unions for same-sex couples got its first approval Monday, triggering applause and cheers from dozens of people who waited nearly four hours for the vote.
The 6-3 Senate committee approval means the bill is one step close to reaching the House, where even Democrats who back the bill concede it faces long odds.
Still, it was a celebratory mood after the vote and Democrats hailed it as an important step for gay rights.
One rookie lawmaker from Denver, Sen. Lucia Guzman, said she’s reminded of the struggles by black people to gain equal rights in the U.S. when she thinks about gays now. She said she realizes her vote in favor of Senate Bill 172 could be an unpopular one.
“By voting for this today, I may even lose my next election,” Guzman said. The bill faces another committee hearing before the full Senate debates it.
The bill sponsored by Denver Sen. Pat Steadman, who is gay, would allow couples to enter into a civil union so they could have several rights similar to married couples, including the ability to be involved in their partner’s medical decisions.
It would also enhance inheritance rights and make it easier for couples to list each other as dependents on health insurance.
Gay couples would still not be able to marry, because voters banned same-sex marriage in 2006. But supporters of the bill say attitudes have changed substantially since then, and they believe the most Coloradoans support their legislation.
Hawaii recently became the seventh state to allow civil unions. Illinois passed a civil unions law in January.
Pastor Roger Anghis, with Littleton’s Prevailing Word Ministries, spoke in opposition of the bill, saying it goes against the word of God.
“You should find this bill, when you put it up against the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to be reprehensible on all levels,” Anghis said as he held up a Bible. “There is nothing in this bill that is good for society in any way, shape or form.”
Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Larimer County said the bill contradicts the wishes of voters in 2006 and that it would undermine marriage.
Senate Republicans also say voters want lawmakers to focus on the economy, not civil unions.
Rep. Ellen Roberts of Durango was the only Republican to join the five Democrats voting for the bill.
Democrats expect the civil unions bill to clear the Senate, where they have a 20-15 majority and every Democrat has signed up as co-sponsor. But the bill will face a tougher challenge in the House, where Republicans have a one-vote majority.
Rep. Claire Levy, a Democrat from Boulder, said there are a handful of Republicans who would support the bill in the House. But the bill may not make it to the floor for a full vote, because Democrats expect Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty to assign it to a committee where it will likely stall, she said.
“What I hear is that the chances aren’t very good, which I think is a shame. I don’t know why this would be a partisan issue,” Levy said.
Before the vote, gay and lesbian couples were sometimes emotional as they pleaded with lawmakers to give them a chance to be in a civil union. Shawna Kemppainen, a 45-year-old Colorado Springs resident, said being in a civil union would give her a better chance of taking care of her partner who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
Kemppainen said she could make sure her partner, Lisa Green, is covered under her health insurance, and they both could have a say about medical decisions if either is hospitalized.
“This is a message about life, respect and the worthiness of individuals,” Kemppainen said about the legislation’s impact. “If you say no to this legislation, you are saying no to thousands of young people across our country who are unsure whether they’re lives are worthy of respect and equality and fairness. I believe we have to send a message of yes to those young people.”