When you strip the religious component out of the debate surrounding civil unions in Colorado, what you are left with, says Rev. Dr. Jacque Franklin, is something basic.
"We consider it a human rights issue," says Franklin. "American citizens need to have the same rights, and that's not happening today."
Franklin is the associate minister for First Congregational Church in Colorado Springs. Part of the United Church of Christ denomination, the church has long recognized the equality of same-sex relationships, even conducting marriage ceremonies for gay couples.
"It's important for people to mark the occasion," she says. "It's a milestone, a date to celebrate."
Of course, such covenants are not legally recognized by the state, despite a recent dramatic, and ultimately unsuccessful, battle within the state Legislature.
Thanks to a number of House Republicans defecting from their party's stance, Colorado came as close as it ever has to authorizing civil unions. In the waning days of the 2012 session, Senate Bill 2 passed through three GOP-controlled committees in the House, only to have Republican leadership grind the session to a halt in order to kill the bill.
In response, Gov. John Hickenlooper called for a special session to deal with SB 2, as well many of the nearly 30 bills that were also killed. On Monday, on the first day of the special session, House Republican leadership sent SB 2 to the conservative-led State, Veterans and Military Affairs, where it died after testimony.
What at least one local activist calls "a 20-year slog" will evidently stretch at least one more year. But what it won't do is go away — not with President Barack Obama now supporting same-sex marriage, and not with so much at stake for gay couples in Colorado.
Rights and responsibilities
When Rep. Marsha Looper, a Republican fighting a fierce primary challenge in local House District 19, came out against civil unions, she did so with a strongly worded press statement.
"One of our nation's most sacred and important principles, marriage between one man and one woman is again under assault at the Colorado State Capitol ... " she wrote. "Any type of civil union policy will create severe and long-term societal consequences."
As a matter of rights, Looper argued, the gay community is already protected under the 2009 Designated Beneficiary Agreement Act.
But a "DBA" — a legal instrument that establishes a number of rights, such as hospital visitation — falls short of a civil union in a number of ways. For one thing, DBAs are contestable, and can be overruled, as noted by Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Inside Out Youth Services, the local organization that serves lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens.
"It's considered a part of legacy planning, similar to powers of attorney, medical powers of attorney," Kemppainen says of DBAs. "In fact, a lot of married couples have these additional legal documents. So they are good, but they're legal documents and legal agreements, leaving couples much more vulnerable than would an actual law."
As with a marriage, once two people enter into a civil union, they would be agreeing to legal responsibilities, as well as gaining rights. As described in the language of SB 2, and confirmed by advocacy group One Colorado:
• Civil unions would establish a framework for the end of a relationship, meaning one party couldn't simply walk away from property and financial responsibilities, such as a mortgage. "If I am in a civil union, and it dissolves, I have financial responsibility — if I have a child with that person, for example," says Kemppainen. "As of right now, it leaves families unprotected."
• Civil unions would entitle a partner to state public assistance. Or, as One Colorado puts it, "the more likely scenario that public assistance benefits will be denied because of the combined income of the household."
• Also, someone in a civil union would be able to legally adopt the child of his/her partner; to access, and be protected under, domestic abuse and violence programs; to make decisions pertaining to CPR, scope of medical treatment, and handling of last remains of the partner; to have visitation rights if the partner goes to jail or prison, or a mental health facility; to refuse to testify against the partner; and so on.
'Total slap in the face'
Kemppainen traveled with two 19-year-olds from Inside Out to the Legislature last week, spending the day observing as the bill was killed for the first time. Watching the filibuster that ran down the clock on debate, led by El Paso County Republicans such as Rep. Bob Gardner, was especially insulting to the teens, she says.
"It was a total slap in the face to the young people who are LGBT," she says. "They are hearing these messages 20 times a day, in school and other places, that 'You are not as good,' 'You're a fag,' 'You're a dyke.' And then to watch their elected representatives killing time talking about license plates and whether we should have french fries or not in cafeterias, was to them utterly unimaginable.
"When you are made invisible for so long, you start to feel invisible and like you don't matter. And that's what's killing kids."
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