Civil unions bill approved by Senate committee in emotional session

Update: After more than six hours of grueling public testimony and three senators on the verge of tears, a Senate committee approved the Colorado Civil Unions Bill.

The measure, a step toward granting same-sex couples parental and property rights similar to those enjoyed by married couples, passed in a 5-2 vote, with one Republican, Senator Ellen Roberts, joining four Democrats.

"The biggest thing the bill does do is it helps those family units," Roberts says. "With that child support obligation, with the rights to see both parents should they separate -- I think that's critically important for the family unit."

Roberts went on to emphasize that she doesn't see the bill as the same as marriage. "I looked at this bill strongly with an eye to make sure that there was adequate separation of church and state," she said. In her view, the proposal is a "matter of rights and recognition."

Advocates representing both sides of the issue filled the hearing room at the State Capitol for the session, which began at 1:30 this afternoon and continued into the evening. The crowd stagnated as the testimony progressed, but more then a hundred lasted throughout the entire hearing.

Republican Senator Kevin Lundberg voted against the bill, describing it as "a precipice at which we stand on the edge and are about to jump off of." He added, "I find that deeply disturbing and cannot support this bill."

Senator Lucia Guzman held back tears before she began her final comments. "I think we're at that place where Senator Lundberg was describing," she says. "With a sense of hope and glee, I can see myself falling from the edge. I see myself taking a huge jump. And I believe I will make it to the other side before I fall into that crevice.... I might lose my next election, but that's okay."

Senator Morgan Carroll voted in favor of the bill, saying it addresses one of the most basic humans right: a personal right to love. "I'm trying to think, 'What if I was at the mercy of other people to vote on whether I should be able to be in the relationship I'm in?" she said. "What if I had to raise millions of dollars to go to a ballot to try and persuade other people who are in relationships that I should be able to have the relationship I have? I can't really imagine being in that situation."

In looking at the difference between civil unions and marriage, Carroll said same-sex marriage couples still have lengths to go along a path to equal rights -- the bill confers only 27 out of more than 1,000 rights married-couples enjoy.

"I am utterly honored to be able to share this moment with you," Carroll said at the conclusion of the hearing, stuttering to hold back tears, "with my colleagues on what I think a small but very critical step towards getting us equal rights."

The bill is expected to pass the full Senate, but there is doubt about whether or not it will win approval from the Republican-controlled House.

Original post, 5:34 p.m. February 15: The Colorado Civil Unions Bill is being debated at the state Capitol today. A similar bill failed last year but has returned to Senate in 2012 -- with some minor changes. Both supporters of same-sex couples receiving similar rights to married couples and those saying civil unions threaten traditional marriages filled the hearing room. Testimony began in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee with words from the bill's sponsor Democratic Senator Pat Steadman.

Here's a video of his testimony:

Following Steadman's testimony, Republican Senator Kevin Lundberg expressed his concerns, asking: "Why are you coming back repeatedly in front of the legislature when this could be more directly dealt with by the people through the initiative process?"

"I would prefer not to see this issue on the ballot," Steadman responded. "But I wonder why it is that we would put significant legal rights and protections of a...group on the ballot for a popular referendum. To me that treads a little closely to the sorts of things our founding fathers tried to protect us against... concerned about the tyranny of the majority and trying to establish a government that prevented warring factions that created divisions amongst us. I think putting any group's rights on the ballot for a vote invites those kinds of factions that is not healthy for our democracy."

"I do not believe the legislature has authority beyond the people," Lundberg responded. "In fact it's quite the opposite. We derive our authority from the people when significant issues have had deep cultural underpinnings one way or the other."

There are three pages worth of witnesses who are scheduled to testify today, and lawmakers have said they will keep listening until they have heard them all. The committee members are expected to vote on the bill this evening.

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