Civil unions in Colorado

The national momentum building behind efforts to have same-sex unions recognized by state governments is nothing if not an inspirational example of broadening understanding and acceptance of differences – despite significant remaining hurdles before all couples can enjoy full equality under the law. A proposed measure pending in the Colorado Legislature would take a big step in that direction by extending to all couples “the legal benefits, protections and responsibilities” that are currently only available to married couples, defined in Colorado’s Constitution as being between one man and one woman.

After much heartfelt testimony, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the measure on a 5-2 vote last week. It was a party line vote with one notable – and honorable – exception: Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, joined Democrats with her yes vote.

Under Senate Bill 2, couples who enter into civil unions can enjoy the same safeguards and privileges that married couples are extended, covering such important components of partnership as adopting children, financial responsibility, insurance coverage, medical decision-making, visitation rights and protection in cases of domestic violence. These and all the provisions of the measure are basic rights that should befall all couples who enter into a formally committed relationship, regardless of who that partnership comprises. By extending these protections to civil unions, the Legislature is ratifying the notion of fairness and encouraging commitment – two values that are hard to argue against for reasons beyond discrimination.

The measure is also careful to point out that it does not attempt to reframe Colorado’s definition of marriage, but instead creates a new category of protected partnerships that are treated by the law in the same manner as marriage. While that is a bit of a semantics game, it serves to avoid the stickier conversation about whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Colorado. Voters in the state have expressed reluctance to do so, most notably with the 2006 amendment that established Colorado’s constitutional definition of marriage, though current polling shows Coloradans trending more in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples. By limiting the issue to civil unions, SB 2 offers a compromise that is certain leave those on either end of the political spectrum unimpressed, but does honor couples whose relationships deserve legal recognition and protection. That the conversation is limited by the constitutional amendment provides lawmakers political cover, but supporting the measure is a vote of conviction nonetheless.

Senate Bill 2 is similar to a measure that passed in the chamber during the 2011 session, also with Sen. Roberts’ support, but was then defeated in the state House, where it is sure to meet a divided and divisive audience in this year’s discussion. But since last year’s defeat, same-sex unions – marriage or otherwise – have been codified by laws in a number of states, including New York and Washington. In all, 17 states offer same-sex couples varying degrees of recognition and protections under the law.

Colorado can help move the discussion toward its proper conclusion: that all couples who choose to commit to one another and their relationship should be able to do so without fear of lost rights or protections. These are basic provisions, not dependent on whom one loves. The Colorado Senate should send SB 2 on to the House, which should pass it expeditiously so as to validate the measure’s sponsor, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, who observed hopefully that, “The arc of history is one that bends toward justice.”

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