DENVER – Thoughts of love, loss and faith hung over the Colorado Senate on Friday when the chamber approved civil unions for gays and lesbians.
Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango was the only one of 15 Republicans to vote for the bill, along with all 20 Democrats.
For the sponsor, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, the long-awaited victory came too late. Steadman sponsored the same bill last year, but it failed in dramatic fashion when House Republicans shut down the chamber rather than bring it up for a vote at the end of the session.
Over the summer, Steadman’s partner of 11 years, Dave Misner, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died 12 weeks later.
Steadman never mentioned Misner’s name Friday, but his presence was unmistakable in Steadman’s words.
“Senate Bill 11 is for lovers and the gifts they give to one another,” Steadman said. “If two people are lucky enough to have found one another, why should the state of Colorado stand in the way?”
Opposition, however, centered on religious values, and whether church-run businesses or individual believers would have to serve same-sex couples.
Last summer, a bakery in the Denver suburbs drew protests when the owner refused to sell a cake for a same-sex commitment ceremony, citing his religious beliefs.
Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, wanted to change the bill to include an exemption for church-run nonprofits, religious individuals and businesses that operate “consistent with stated religious values.”
“Religious freedom is woven into the very fabric of our lives,” Hill said.
Steadman said people who choose to run a business have to operate by anti-discrimination rules, and he quoted Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in response to the call for a religious exemption.
“Get thee to a nunnery,” Steadman said. “Go live a monastic life.”
Roberts was the only Republican to oppose Hill’s amendment, which lost in the face of unified Democratic opposition.
Roberts joined other Republicans in voting to exempt adoption agencies and to refer civil unions to a vote of the people, but those amendments also lost.
She said opponents had sincere intentions.
“This is not taken lightly, and the belief systems people hold in their hearts are incredibly important,” Roberts said.
She supports the bill because it respects private property rights and supports family values by promoting the family unit, she said. And she hopes the issue can be put to rest this year.
“What I hope is we return to looking at people as individuals,” Roberts said. “This issue is only one dimension of a homosexual person’s identity.”
Other Republicans, though, voted no on religious grounds.
“I believe that the institution of marriage was clearly defined and intended as a cornerstone of our society long before the foundations of the earth were laid,” said Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker. “For me, this bill is an erosion of that institution, and I therefore can’t support it.”
And Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, said SB 11 is a step toward same-sex marriage.
Steadman admitted as much at the very beginning of the three-hour debate, saying that the Senate was about to pass civil unions “at a time when many in our state are ready for something bigger and more bold.”
The bill still needs to pass one more formal vote – most likely Monday – in the Senate before heading to the House.