Civil unions

Ellen Roberts’ break with other senators of her party was courageous and correct

The Colorado state Senate gave its final approval Monday to a bill allowing civil unions for same-sex couples. Of the Senate’s 15 Republican members, only state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, voted for the bill.

It was the right thing to do. It also was brave, all the more so because she probably could have ducked it.

The outcome of the Senate vote was never in question. With a total of 35 senators and all 20 Democrats behind it, the bill needed no GOP support. It passed 21-14, save for Roberts along strict party lines. (It should pass the House easily.)

The Democrats made it clear when they regained control of the state House in November that civil unions would be one of their legislative priorities. That was after Republicans shut down the House at the end of the session last year rather than allow a vote on a civil-unions bill.

In that partisan climate, Roberts might have been tempted to take a pass on this vote. Sitting it out would not have threatened its passage. And it certainly would have attracted less attention.

But voting “yes” was the right thing to do. Roberts said she backed the bill because it respects private-property rights and promotes family values by supporting family units.

She is right about that, but her thinking stands in marked contrast to that of some in her party. Too many of them voiced hackneyed objections to the effect that allowing same-sex civil unions is somehow an affront to religious freedom and the institution of marriage – as if same-sex unions would be forced on anyone.

Another senator objected that civil unions were a step toward allowing gay marriage, which they clearly are. Left out of that complaint is why that might be bad.

Gay rights is perhaps the fastest-evolving social change in American history, and lawmakers around the country are struggling to keep up. They might do better if they recognize that it all rests on simple fairness. The state has no business denying legal rights or status to any group just because its members or the way they live are not well-liked in some circles. And given how many Americans have at some point in history been treated poorly in that regard, that should be an easy argument to understand.

Roberts was right to put principle over party unity and vote her conscience. Other lawmakers – Democrats included – should take note.