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Gazette Premium Content Civil unions bill passes committee, Catholic Charities speaks out

MEGAN SCHRADER Updated: March 1, 2013 at 12:00 am

DENVER - Religious-based adoption agencies might be forced to close if civil unions for same-sex couples become law, Mark Rohlena, president of Catholic Charities of Central Colorado, testified Thursday before a House committee.

“A broad conscience protection should be included in this bill if it must be passed,” Rohlena said. “Sadly in places like Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., we have seen Catholic Charity organizations forced out of their adoption and foster care programs where they are trusted partners with the state when conscience objections are not protected.”

Rohlena said the organization’s adoption guidelines require they place children only with couples who have been married three years. The proposed civil unions law would require them to place children with same-sex couples in civil unions.

Civil unions passed the House Judiciary Committee in a vote of 8-3, with Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, tearfully breaking party lines to support the measure.

Senate Bill 11 creates a new legal status in Colorado law that would grant many of the same rights married couples have to couples with civil unions. If the bill passes, couples will be able to apply for civil union licenses at county clerk offices beginning May 1.

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, has sponsored the legislation four times in the past three years.

He and his partner, Greg, are foster parents to a 1-year-old girl, Lila, they hope to adopt.

“It is about the best interest of the child, not the narrow interest of any one agency,” Ferrandino said. “Hopefully, if this passes this year, we will be able to adopt her and have it recognized in civil unions and have those protections. There’s so many LBGT families raising kids. … This is going to provide them those legal protections.”

Rep. Polly Lawrence, 
R-Littleton, tried to amend the bill to provide protections to religious groups providing adoptions, but the other three Republicans on the committee were out of the room, and it died without a second.

“Our adoption guidelines require that we place children only with married couples, our definition of marriage … is a union of one man and one woman,” Rohlena said. “The Catholic Church has for unbroken centuries maintained its same teachings on marriage as it does today.”

Since 1968, Rohlena said, the El Paso County-based Catholic Charities of Central Colorado has performed about 400 adoptions in 11 counties in addition to countless services to birth parents and adoptive parents. Rohlena said the other two chapters of Catholic Charities in Colorado have administered far more adoptions and also provide foster care services.

The Rev. Mike Morran of First Unitarian Society of Denver said the law will allow religious institutions to discriminate if they so choose. A church can deny ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples or deny access to religious facilities, Morran said.

But when it comes to placing children with adoptive parents or in foster homes, Morran said, “They can discriminate, or they can accept public money, but they can’t do both.”

Attorney General John Suthers urged the House Judiciary Committee to amend the law to exempt religious institutions.

Suthers was placed in the custody of Catholic Charities in 1951 by his unwed mother. He was adopted by a couple in Colorado Springs.

“I had a wonderful childhood,” Suthers said. “They taught me all the values I needed to succeed in life. It’s no surprise I have a very soft spot in my heart for Catholic Charities.”

He said no private entity has placed more children with adoptive parents and that as the bill is written, that social service would cease in Colorado.

“That would be a great loss and a very unnecessary one,” Suthers said. “They made my life better, and they can do the same for future generations of Colorado children.”

Suthers said, however, that the law is constitutionally defensible and that if asked to do so his office could provide a legal defense.

Jason Cobb and his partner of 15 years adopted their now 6-year-old son in 2007 through a nonsectarian adoption agency.

“We’re not allowed to adopt together. The law does not provide for that,” said Cobb, 38, of Denver. “The adoption agency can say, ‘Which one of you wants to go first?’ What that does is shut off all the resources of the other parent to the child, including health care and the ability to take leave.”

Cobb said it’s not a fair process. Cobb, who himself was adopted, said the claim from religious adoption agencies that they would rather leave the state than adopt to same-sex couples is “incredibly offensive.”

“What I hear from Catholic Charities is not about having as many people as possible find their forever families,” Cobb said.

For Larry and Amy Rudnicki, Catholic Charities was the best option for their pending adoption because of their religious beliefs. Larry Rudnicki said it is ironic that the state would require Catholic Charities to place children with same-sex couples when the state discriminates in so many other ways during the process.

“It’s a very intrusive process,” Rudnicki said. “They discriminate on income, age, health and medical conditions. They want to know the medical history of your family.”

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THE BILL

SB11: Creates civil unions for all couples including same-sex couples, that give them many of the same legal protections as marriage in Colorado. Starting 
May 1, couples would be able to apply for licenses at county clerk offices across the state.

Authors: Sens. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, and Lucia Guzman, D-Denver; House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge.

Action: Passes House Judiciary Committee 8-3

Next step: House Finance Committee

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