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Tussle over same-sex civil unions exposes fissure in Colorado GOP

TORONTO.OCT.21.2009 Portrait of Konrad Yakabuski, the Globe and Mail's new Washington correspondent. PHOTO BY FRED LUM/ GLOBE AND MAIL DIGITAL IMAGE

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Advocates of same-sex marriage in Colorado face a climb almost as steep as the mountains on the Denver horizon. A 2006 amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage passed easily and overturning it remains a distant dream for Brad Clark.

The executive director of One Colorado, a gay-rights advocacy group, Mr. Clark is instead focused on a more modest goal: winning legal recognition for same-sex civil unions. If he succeeds any time soon, it will be a matter of third time lucky.

Twice in the past two years, Democrats in the state legislature tabled bills that would have allowed gay couples to form civil unions, according them the same rights as heterosexual couples in such matters as pensions, adoptions and caring for a sick partner. Each time, Republicans got in the way.

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Colorado's tussles over civil unions show how, even when public opinion and a majority of legislators are supportive of gay rights, a determined opposition consisting of Republican politicians and evangelical Christian militants can still win the day.

In 2010, Republicans won a one-seat majority in the Colorado state House of Representatives, giving them control over the legislative agenda.

Though the civil unions bill sailed through the Democratic-controlled Senate this year, and at least three GOP members expressed support in advance of an expected vote on the House floor last month, Speaker Frank McNulty and Majority Leader Amy Stephens never let it get that far. Last month, they prevented the bill from coming to a vote, despite Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper's decision to extend the legislative session in order to allow it.

"It's been no secret that there were more than enough votes to pass the bill," Mr. Clark said. "But the House leadership essentially shut down the legislature to prevent a vote. … He catered to the extreme right-wing of his party."

In Colorado, the religious right threatened to back rival Republicans in the state's June 26 GOP primary if Mr. McNulty and Ms. Stephens allowed the civil unions bill to come to a vote in the House. Churchgoers were urged to pressure the duo and other GOP politicians to stop "homosexual marriage."

Indeed, opponents sought to obscure the distinction between civil unions and same-sex marriage, despite Mr. Hickenlooper's insistence that the civil unions bill would not "legislate what happens inside a church or place of worship."

Without a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage nationwide, the vast majority of gay relationships in the United States will continue to go unrecognized. Though gay marriage is legal in six states and the District of Columbia, there are 31 states whose constitutions ban same-sex marriage and 17 also ban civil unions.

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One Colorado, which was formed only two years ago and counts gay Denver software magnate Tim Gill as a major financial backer, is not giving up. The organization's 20,000 members are working to elect a "pro-equality" state House in this fall's election.

Indeed, Mr. McNulty's move exposed a fissure within the Colorado GOP. The state has long counted a strong cohort of libertarian voters, and they sided with moderate Republicans in defying the GOP leadership on the civil unions bill. Polls showed more than 60 per cent of Coloradans supported the bill.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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