Civil unions bill clears House committee with GOP’s Murray voting yes

DENVER — For a third straight year, the House Judiciary Committee heard legislation to recognize same-sex civil unions, passing it Thursday for the second year in a row.

Also for the second straight year, one Republican lawmaker on the panel cast a vote in favor of the bill.

Last year, the surprising yes vote from Rep. B.J. Nikkel of Loveland kept the bill alive and set it on a journey that ended when GOP House leadership shut down proceedings entirely as a last-ditch maneuver to prevent a final vote.

This year, with Democrats back in control of the House and its many committees, the yes vote from Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, wasn’t decisive.

It was merely the icing on the cake.

“Times change. I think this bill is about people wanting to take on that commitment. I don’t think we have enough people doing that in our society,” Murray said in a cracking voice at the end of a five hour hearing.

“Jesus taught us to love one another. In that spirit, I’ll be a yes vote on this bill,” Murray, tearing up, told the hushed chamber.

With that, Senate Bill 11 cleared the House Judiciary Committee Thursday evening on a 8-3 vote with all seven Democrats and Murray, who recognized that her conservative district might take issue with her vote, voting yes.

The gay and lesbian couples and advocates at the Capitol to testify, many of them returning for a third or fourth or even fifth time addressing lawmakers, brought a triumphant air, as did the bill’s sponsor.

“As I’ve always said about this bill, it’s not a matter of if, but when,” House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, told a few hundred supporters of civil unions during a lunchtime rally outside the Capitol.

“I thought last year was going to be when. But we know that this year is going to be when.”

The bill will ensure that same-sex couples who join in a civil union will receive legal protections afforded to traditionally married couples: hospital visitation, estate planning and shared custody of children should the union end.

“I have the honor of serving as Speaker of the House and yet my family is not equal under the law,” Ferrandino said. “All we are asking for with this bill is equality.”

Opponents of the bill, many of whom have also testified on civil unions many times before, argued on religious and moral grounds that gay and lesbian couples, in their view, are not recognized by God and, thus, don’t deserve equal recognition under the law.

An attorney representing a Lakewood baker who refused to make a wedding-style cake for gay couple, a baker now facing a discrimination suit, also argued that the bill will force other Colorado businesses to compromise their own religious beliefs.

Last years civil unions bill included a religious exemption as part of an effort by the sponsors to win critical Republican votes.

This year, the sponsors, not needing Republican votes to pass the bill, took the exemption out.

Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Littleton, offered an amendment near the end of Thursday’s hearing to add the religious exemption but, stunningly, no other Republican committee members were in the chamber to second her motion, which invalidated the motion.

And former state Rep. Ed Jones, R-Colorado Springs, who referred to Mark Ferrandino’s partner, Greg, as his “wife” during a pro-marriage rally at the Capitol earlier this year, sat beside Ferrandino at the witness table and took issue with those who’ve called gay rights a civil rights issue.

“I didn’t have a choice [pf being black],” Jones said. “I hear that gays don’t have a choice, but I’ll bet you there are gays in this building who have been married before.

“I don’t dislike gays, I know a lot of gays,” he continued. “I know that’s like saying I know a lot of blacks. But I don’t care who you marry, I just don’t want you to go down this road where you keep equating gays with black civil rights,” said Jones, who went on to describe lynchings carried out against blacks in his native Mississippi.

“I don’t ever remember seeing any water fountains in Mississippi that said ‘gays only’.”

Following the vote, S.B. 11 moves to the House Finance Committee and then on to the House floor for the full debate it was denied nearly a year ago.

“It’s been a long, hard struggle to enact civil unions in Colorado, and I’m excited that we’re writing the final chapter,” Ferrandino said.