Dozens of gay-rights activists erupted into cheers Monday evening when a state Senate committee approved a bill that would create civil unions for same-sex couples.

The bill was approved on a 9-3 vote, with a Republican senator siding with Democrats.

Senate Bill 172, by Denver Democrats Sen. Pat Steadman and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, would give rights such as hospital visitation and health benefits to gay couples. Currently, same-sex couples do not have many of the rights accorded to heterosexual couples.

“This bill ensures that everyone in Colorado has equal protection under the law,” Steadman told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “That’s what civil unions are about.”

Hours of impassioned testimony for and against the bill followed his opening remarks.

Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Inside/Out Youth Services in Colorado Springs, described how her partner, Lisa Green, has multiple sclerosis, and said Green’s condition may deteriorate at any moment. She said being joined in a civil union would make it easier for them to obtain prescription drugs and mutual health benefits.

“This is really about us being able to take care of each other,” Kemppainen said.

Opponents were just as emphatic.

“After you pass this bill, will you then go into classrooms and teach there’s no difference between homosexual sex and heterosexual sex?” asked Rosina Kovar, of Denver. “We ought to be telling the truth about fornication and sodomy and what it’s costing us.”

A homosexual couple spoke against the bill, and said the measure would cut off any future possibility of establishing full marriage equality.

“We call it crumbs instead of the entire cake,” said Tom Carllon.

Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, was one of three Republicans who voted against the measure. He called the bill an “assault on the institution of marriage and family.”

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, agreed.

“The will of the Colorado voters has been ignored by the Legislature,” Cadman said, referring to a pair of 2006 ballot measures.

Referendum I that year would have granted same-sex couples many of the same rights as heterosexual married couples. It failed. Amendment 43 defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. It passed.

House Republicans, however, were more tempered in their approach. Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, said she supports civil unions, as long as the definition of marriage remains between a man and a woman.

Reps. Bob Gardner and Janak Joshi, both Colorado Springs Republicans, said they haven’t made up their minds about the bill. Gardner, as head of the House Judiciary Committee, likely will preside over the bill’s first House hearing. He said he has not supported civil unions in the past, but promised to give the bill a fair examination.

Ferrandino said he has the votes in the House to pass the bill, if it passes out of committee.


Read more about Colorado politics at my Second Reading blog.