Governor John Hickenlooper made same-sex civil unions legal in Colorado, where two decades ago voters passed a constitutional amendment banning local ordinances to protect gay rights.
The Colorado Civil Union Act, which the Democrat-controlled legislature moved to Hickenlooper earlier this month, provides gays with rights similar to those of married couples. Applications for the licenses can be filed starting May 1.
“The gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual community is part of all of us,” Hickenlooper, 61, told scores of cheering same-sex couples after he signed the bill at History Colorado, a museum in Denver. “There’s no excuse that people shouldn’t have the same rights,” the first-term Democrat said.
Colorado became the 15th state to recognize either same-sex marriage or civil unions, marking a dramatic shift in public opinion since 1992, when it became known as the “hate state” because of the ban that passed that year. The ballot measure blocked municipal anti-discrimination laws to protect gays. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned it as unconstitutional in 1996.
The battle over civil unions in the swing state underscored deep divisions between more traditional southern and rural parts of Colorado and the urban communities at the foot of the Rocky Mountains -- known as the Front Range -- and Denver.
A similar measure failed in 2012 after Republicans used their majority in the House of Representatives to prevent debate on the bill. The defeat led Hickenlooper, a former Denver mayor, to call a special legislative session, yet the bill didn’t advance. Galvanized by the defeat, gay-rights supporters played a key role in shifting control of the House to Democrats in elections last year.
The measure signed into law yesterday gives same-sex partners rights similar to those of married couples, including the ability to transfer and inherit property, make medical decisions for each other and to be eligible for family leave and public assistance.
Gay rights advocates nationwide closely watched the bill’s progress this year. When it passed the House on March 12, COleg and civilunions landed among the top trending topics worldwide on Twitter.com, according to the ColoradoPeakPolitics blog.
The measure’s passage also underscored a shift in U.S. public opinion. About 63 percent of Americans said same-sex marriage or civil unions should be legal, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll from Jan. 1 through March 14.
“Public opinion is changing so rapidly, so incredibly quickly on this,” said Jane Schacter, an expert on sexual orientation law who teaches at Stanford University.
“The typical course of these things is to enact civil unions and let them percolate for a while,” she said. “The advocates’ strategy is to let people see the sky doesn’t fall and marriage doesn’t look that different for them -- and then the next step can be taken.”
Civil unions for same-sex couples were allowed in Vermont before lawmakers there made gay marriage legal in 2009. The Illinois legislature is considering a similar progression.
Gay marriage isn’t possible under Colorado law -- in 2006, voters decided to amend the state constitution to declare marriage a contract between a man and a woman.
That reality tempered celebrations over enactment of the civil union law, with many residents declaring that the measure stops short of providing full equality.
The schism came into view when Hickenlooper posted this message on March 12 on his Facebook.com page: “CivilUnions passes! Today, every Coloradan has equal rights.” The posting received almost 400 replies, including one that read: “equal rights? This is the ‘Jim Crow’ version of equal rights.”
Gay-rights advocates declined to comment on whether they will push a ballot initiative to overturn the marriage definition in the constitution. State law only lets fiscal initiatives appear on the ballot in odd-numbered years, so such a measure can’t qualify until 2014 at the earliest.
“We’re just concentrating on celebrating the victory,” said Brad Clark, executive director at Denver-based One Colorado, a group representing 25,000 gays and lesbians statewide. “In the meantime, the Supreme Court will weigh in on marriage for gay and lesbian couples; we’re focused on watching what happens with that.”
The nation’s high court is scheduled to start hearing two cases related to same-sex marriage on March 26 -- one on a ban in California and another on a federal law that blocks the government from recognizing such unions. A broad ruling in either case may affect Colorado, civil-rights scholars said.
“Those two court cases may have a real influence on what happens in Colorado,” said Brian Powell, who teaches sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington. “If the Supreme Court moves toward a more liberal opinion, the public is likely to become even more favorable, or more receptive, to same-sex marriage.”
Reflecting the deep divide in Colorado over gay marriage, state Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, joined 21 other attorneys general in urging the court to uphold the California ban.
Opponents of same-sex civil unions in Colorado said they fully expect advocates to push for gay marriage in the near future.
“Neither Colorado Democrats, nor the state’s LGBT population, view the civil union bill as anything but a milepost on the way to same-sex marriage,” said Bruce Hausknecht, a judicial analyst for Colorado Springs-based CitizenLink, a Christian-oriented family advocacy group.
The nationwide elections in November marked a watershed for gay rights, with same-sex marriage proponents winning at the ballot box for the first time. Maine voters made same-sex marriage legal, while in Maryland and Washington state, they rejected repealing such laws. The victories show that the ballot box is now an option for proponents, Powell said.
“Marriage-equality advocates would probably want change to happen as quickly as possible,” he said. “Time is on their side -- public opinion is moving toward recognition of same-sex couples -- this has been recognized in every state.”