Governor’s Signature Legalizes Civil Unions in Colorado
A crowd gathered at Denver's History Colorado Center on March 21 to watch Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper sign into law Senate Bill 11, legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples. The bill will take effect May 1.
"In every corner of Colorado, same-sex couples have been waiting for ten, twenty and sometimes even forty years to have access to critical legal protections that can help protect their families," said Brad Clark, executive director of the LGBT advocacy organization One Colorado. "Now, they finally do -- thanks to the courage and leadership of Governor Hickenlooper and our state lawmakers."
The struggle to obtain legal recognition for same-sex couples and their families has been an intense one in Colorado. A constitutional amendment passed in 2006 forbids gay marriage, but public opinion has shifted in the last seven years, at least enough to allow for civil unions, which a majority of Coloradans now say they are in favor of.
A similar bill legalizing civil unions that was introduced in 2012 had gathered support in the Legislature among several Republicans. It now appears it would have have passed if it had been put to a vote. But Republican Speaker of the House Frank McNulty blocked a vote by the full House, thus letting it die on the House floor in what many saw as blatant partisan maneuvering.
"People were disappointed by how the 2012 legislative session ended," said Rep. Mark Ferrandino shortly after being named McNulty's replacement and Colorado's first openly gay speaker. "It's important now that we restore the public's confidence in the institution."
After Democrats gained a majority in the Colorado House and retained control of the Senate in 2012, the path to legalizing civil unions was clear. This year's civil union bill was sponsored by Ferrandino and openly gay Sen. Pat Steadman, and co-sponsored by every Democrat in the Colorado House and Senate.
Passage a Foregone Conclusion
From the time the bill was introduced this year, its passage was essentially a foregone conclusion, as was Hickenlooper’s signing it. But that doesn’t make the victory any less thrilling to LGBT Coloradans, their families and their allies.
"This historic victory belongs to the thousands of loving, committed couples across the state who have worked tirelessly for years to make it possible for their families, and all families, to have these important legal safeguards," said Clark. "For them, this moment was long overdue."
The new law will allow parties to a civil union in Colorado many of the rights associated with marriage, including survivor benefits, adoption rights and visitation rights. Parties to a civil union will also be protected under domestic violence and witness protection laws, and will be able to file claims related to spousal status, such as wrongful death or emotional distress. But they will not receive federal rights related to marriage, such as immigration rights or Social Security survivor benefits. Parties to a civil union may not file state or federal taxes jointly.
With the bill’s passage into law, Colorado becomes the ninth state to offer civil unions as an alternative to marriage for gay couples. Nine more states, as well as the District of Columbia, allow same-sex couples to marry, and one state (Rhode Island) recognizes same-sex marriages performed where it is legal to do so. Same-sex marriages performed in other states will be recognized in Colorado as civil unions.
Opponents Allege Soft Religious Carve-Outs
Opponents of SB-11 argued that it does not offer sufficient exemptions for religious organizations. While the new law does not compel churches to recognize or perform civil unions, it lacks the religious exemptions for businesses contained in last year’s incarnation. Some conservative critics have suggested that the law will be harmful to religiously affiliated adoption agencies. Supporters of civil unions, however, responded that allowing broader religious exemptions would sanction discrimination.
For Coloradans in same-sex relationships, this new law is an enormous and important step toward equality. Yet barriers still remain, the largest of which is the constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
"Today, we also know that our work is not yet finished; our journey to full equality is not complete," said Clark. "Like so many others here in Colorado and across the country, I grew up with the hope of one day falling in love and making a lifelong promise to the one I love. We know that this promise is called marriage -- not civil unions.
"Polls show that a majority of Coloradans support marriage for same-sex couples -- part of a broader and undeniable shift in public opinion that we’ve seen across the country," he said. "Moving forward, as more and more Americans consider what it means to extend the freedom to marry to all loving, committed couples, we look forward to beginning an important conversation with Coloradans about why marriage matters to all families -- straight and gay alike."