DENVER– The state Senate gave the nod Wednesday on the second reading of a bill to legalize same-sex civil unions after listening to impassioned testimony by its sponsor, Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver), who talked of his own concerns and hopes as a gay man. Though the bill is expected to pass the Senate on the third reading, it’s unlikely to meet the litmus test in the House.
Part of its likely failure is that Steadman had indicated approval, but then disapproved an amendment proposed by Sen. Shawn Mitchell (R-Broomfield) that attempted to find a compromise between same-sex couples’ wishes and protect individuals and entities from being forced to perform services against their consciences and personal religious convictions.
The amendment would have allowed owners of public facilities and event centers, and mental health counselors, who often help marital partners and families, to be excluded from providing services to same-sex partners.
“I believe it’s possible for us to respond affirmatively to the desire of same-sex households for policies that recognize their needs and challenges and not stifle the free speech, free thought and free conscience of other people in our society,” said Mitchell. “And that is what amendment 18 would accomplish.”
“People in their private choices can weigh their values and beliefs, their convictions in the way they interact with their fellow human being,” said Mitchell.
“If we don’t pass this amendment, we know what will happen next,” warned Mitchell. “What happens next is this policy extends recognition to same-sex couples and civil unions – and then advocates and more militant voices“ are asserted.
That action, he said, is followed by instigators, regulators and special interest attorneys who will push the envelope and try to take professional counseling and business licenses from those who do not comply with the bill if enacted into law.
Mitchell said these entities for same-sex unions will act on the premises of: “We’re going to spread this policy. We’re going to marginalize people with different views and overcome their conscientious objections. We’ll sue them. We’ll regulate them. We’re going to deny their licenses. We will stamp out dissent.”
Without the amendment, the bill will not be a measure of compassion, but a measure of oppression, said Mitchell, adding it would be forced conformity.
“We should not go down that path,” said Mitchell. “We should preserve freedom and conscience for all.”
But, Steadman argued against the amendment saying that it would promote “the right to discriminate.”
“Make no mistake. This is about the right to discriminate. It is specifically about the right of a person who offers some public facility or other place of accommodation where people might conduct a ceremony or celebration in conformity with civilization,” declared Steadman.
“Think of a banquet hall or event center that leases itself out to the public,” said Steadman. “Should the owner of that facility have the right to discriminate?… The answer is no.”
Steadman said if any owner of such facility could say no to same-sex couples’ celebrations, they could then be allowed to discriminate against Jews or others. And he argued so could mental health professional counselors.
But he conceded, “If you’re in a civil union relationship with a problem, you’re probably not going to go to the therapist who looks at you with contempt and disgust.”
“But, this amendment says that rather than trust people to choose the right therapist for them, we will allow therapists to discriminate against those who they don’t wish to serve,” asserted Steadman.
Mitchell countered, “He trusts the patients’ freedom to seek out counseling… what he doesn’t trust is the freedom of service providers to decide who they can help…. That’s not freedom; that’s force.”
Mitchell, who has known Steadman for more than 14 years and sought his input on the amendment, was astounded when the Democrat opposed his amendment.
In his arguments against Mitchell’s amendment, Steadman insinuated that gays and lesbians should be accorded the same protections under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects the rights for African Americans and women. There has never been an amendment successfully proposed to Congress to include a class of people based on their sexual preference.
“He was trying to say that we should embrace this under the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” said Mitchell. “The way the bill is written now will prompt lawsuits.”
The state would be taking a step farther than the federal Civil Rights Act if the legislature and Governor John Hickenlooper approves the bill. But, Mitchell warned that would lead to lawsuits against people who do not open their facilities, event centers or businesses for any same-sex couple’s celebration or counseling – and their countersuits.
“I did confer with (Steadman) about my amendments and he said they were fine,” said Mitchell. “I was surprised that he came back (after lunch) and said no…. My amendments would have allowed him to achieve the benefits he wanted.”
Assistant House Majority Leader Mark Waller agreed with Mitchell that the amendments were critical to survival of the bill in the House. As the bill is written now, Waller said it will be killed.
Waller said the way the bill is written would create a special class of citizens under Coloradolaw that does not conform to federal laws. That, in itself, he said, could result in lawsuits.