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Civil unions debate rages in Colorado

By Alan Duke, CNN
updated 2:06 PM EDT, Tue May 15, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A house committee vote kills the civil unions bill for this year in Colorado
  • "We will keep fighting to equality and #civilunions," the sponsor tweets
  • Democrats are using civil unions as an election issue, the Republican House speaker says
  • Five states allow civil unions, a legal status short of marriage, for same-sex couples

(CNN) -- The battle over same-sex civil unions in Colorado did not end when a legislative committee killed a measure to allow them Monday, leaders for both sides said Tuesday.

"We will keep fighting to equality and #civilunions," State Rep. Mark Ferrandino, the leader of the minority Democrats, said in a Twitter posting after a committee voted 5-4 not to sent the bill to the house floor.

Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty, who assigned the bill to a committee where he knew the majority Republicans would opposed it, acknowledged Tuesday that the civil unions debate "is not over for the year."

"It's pretty clear (the Democrats) are attempting to use this as an agenda item heading into the November elections," McNulty told CNN in a phone interview.

"McNulty fights against equality & thwarts democratic process voters will remember," Ferrandino, the bill's sponsor, tweeted Tuesday.

McNulty accused Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, of trying to divide Coloradans by calling the special session to consider the civil unions bill.

The speaker sent the bill to the State Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which Ferrandino called McNulty's "kill committee," so the process would "move as efficiently as possible" to allow legislators to "refocus our efforts to put Coloradans back to work."

"Colorado has an unemployment rate that is still far too high," McNulty said.

McNulty disputes Hickenlooper's claim that the civil unions bill is not a same-sex marriage measure, which the Colorado state constitution prohibits.

"The bill itself makes the case for that," he said. "It really is creating the concept of same-sex marriage."

It would lead to a costly legal fight over its constitutionality, he said. "There's no doubt in my mind this would happen."

The civil unions bill cleared committees in the last days of the regular session, but was filibustered by Republicans in the final days, Hickenlooper said. He called this week's special session to complete the work.

"They wouldn't let it come to the floor, and when it died, 30 other bills died. And these are important to our businesses," the governor told CNN.

McNulty said it was "a last-minute, divisive attack on our traditional views on marriage for short-term political gain."

McNulty suggested there was a link between what is going on in Colorado and President Barack Obama's announcement last week that he supports same-sex marriage. "To me, it's more than a simple coincidence that all of this is happening at the same time," McNulty said. "Bills die on the calendar every year and we don't have a special session as a result of it."

A civil union is a legal status created by the state of Vermont in 2000, and subsequently adopted by a number of other states, according to Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, in a posting on its website. "It provides legal protection to couples at the state law level, but omits federal protections as well as the dignity, clarity, security and power of the word 'marriage.'"

Obama said last week that he supports letting states decide the issue of same-sex marriage on their own, but added that he was "disappointed" by last Tuesday's vote on the issue in North Carolina, where a ban on same-sex marriage was added to the state constitution. Obama believes the amendment is discriminatory against gays and lesbians, a spokesman said Wednesday.

Five U.S. states allow civil unions for same-sex couples, but not marriage.

Six states -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York -- and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, while 31 states have voted in favor of constitutional amendments that seek to define marriage as a heterosexual union.

In February, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage beginning in June, but opponents there have pledged to block the bill and called for voters to decide the issue. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law a bill that permits the state's same-sex couples to wed as of January 1, and state residents may vote to affirm such a law.

Minnesota will vote on a state constitutional amendment similar to the one in North Carolina, while Maine will have a referendum on allowing same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, two cases seeking to overturn laws forbidding the practice, one from California and another from Massachusetts, could be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court in coming months.

CNN's Tom Watkins contributed to this report.

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