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Colo. Civil Unions Bill Passes Biggest Test Yet (VIDEO, PHOTOS, LIVEBLOG)

By IVAN MORENO 05/03/12 11:48 PM ET AP

Gay Pride

DENVER — Gay couples campaigning for civil unions in Colorado have claimed their biggest victory yet as a key Republican-led House committee advanced a bill Thursday that it had previously opposed.

The newfound support means Colorado is likely to become the latest of more than a dozen states to provide legal protections to gay couples similar to marriage.

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, the Democrats' leader in the House and a gay lawmaker who sponsored the bill, said before the vote that he and other people just want equal rights. He noted the law books behind the Republican chairman overseeing the House Judiciary Committee's hearing.

"All we're asking is for equal access to those books that are behind you Mr. Chairman," Ferrandino said.

The measure approved Thursday evening faces two more committee votes, but sponsors are optimistic they have enough support to get the legislation to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is firmly behind the plan. The measure has already passed the Senate.

At one point, dozens in the audience stood up when the committee chairman asked for supporters to stand up because the first phase of testimony was ending and they wouldn't be able to speak.

The 6-5 vote came after hours of emotional testimony from gay couples who said they're vulnerable because they don't have the rights afforded to married people. One Republican joined Democrats in approving the bill.

The plan died in the same committee last year on a 6-5 party line vote.

Opponents argue civil unions undermine traditional marriage and that voters expressed their position on the issue when they banned same-sex marriage in 2006.

Byron Babione, with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative group that stands for religious freedom, echoed the concerns of some of the opponents when he said civil unions are "marriage without the name."

However, supporters say the bill still does not allow marriage between gay couples.

Opponents also said gay couples already have some of the legal protections they're seeking under a state-designated beneficiary law.

But supporters said there are still important rights same-sex couples lack. The civil unions legislation gives gay couples more authority in medical and end-of-life decisions and enhances parental rights, among other things.

"I ask you to vote tonight in favor of all of your constituents," said Jason Cobb, a Denver attorney who is raising a son with another man. "We're more than a political issue. We're your family, we're your neighbors, your sons, your daughters, your grandchildren. I ask you to vote for family tonight."

Before the hearing, scores of people in civil unions rallied across from the state Capitol on the steps of Denver's City and County building. They held multicolored signs that read "Love is love" and "Equality for All," and carried a rainbow-colored flag.

Fran Simon, 43, showed the crowd a stack of paperwork that she and her partner, 42-year-old Anna Simon, have amassed to prove the legitimacy of their relationship – wills, powers of attorney and a birth certificate for their 4-year-old son.

"But even with this large stack of papers, we have no way of knowing if in our time of need, will it be sufficient?" said Fran Simon. "Even if it's sufficient, will we have the right paper at the right time?"

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Senate Bill 2: http://goo.gl/GR9y4

LOOK: Civil Unions bill rally
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After 3 1/2 hours of testimony and questions in front of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. B.J. Nikkel of Loveland, a Republican, broke the party-line by voting yes.

After her vote successfully carried the bill out of committee, Nikkel told the Denver Post, "I think it was the right thing to do. We're all Coloradans, right? It's not something I'm passionate about but I think we ought to move forward and bring it to a vote in the House."

Ferrandino says he's very happy the bill passed and that Rep. Nikkel must have changed her mind after listening to tonight's testimony.

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I and the people you've heard before are not asking for a validation of our relationship. My partner and I have been together for 13 years, and whatever happens here today does not change my relationship with Greg. We love each other and will continue to be with each other no matter what happens.

What we're asking for is equal rights... as I sit here on the floor before you, I don't have equal access to that law... my family, as many of you know, Greg and I are thinking of adopting and my child won't have equal access to that law.

All we're asking for is equal access to those books behind you mister chairman... we should treat all families as the same under the law.

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DiGiacomo testifies that he is attracted to men, and goes on to detail his belief that this led him to "bathhouses" and "orgies".

DiGiacomo refers to the "gay lifestyle" as the "culture of death." He goes on to thank the Catholic and other religious groups that provide "ex-gay" programs.

No committee questions for DiGiacomo.

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"Children deserve both a mom and a dad...SB 2 gives couples an out. I can hear the debate now, 'I won't marry you, but we can have a civil union'... what civil unions would do should be opposed. This is not good for children, this is not good for society at large. Simply put, this is bad public policy"

Father Carmody is thanking the committee for the exemption by child providers to opt out based on religious beliefs. He urges the committee to still vote agains SB 2 however.

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Former Sen. Ed Jones testifies against SB2

"I don't like the bill, the same reason I didn't like it last year."

Ed Jones is a Republican from Colorado Springs who co-chaired President George H.W. Bush's 1992 re-election campaign in Colorado.

Jones says he takes issue with civil unions being called "civil rights" because, he says, civil unions are about choices. He also says that in his personal opinion, this bill redefines marriage and that the Bible said "Adam and Eve, not two Adams or two Eves."

He said, "Think about the man, the woman and the babies," arguing that "babies" or rather, children, would be stigmatized for having gay parents.

Jones says, "I've got gay friends, I go to football games with them. But I don't necessarily agree with their lifestyle."

Rep. Dan Pabon, one of the five Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee tells Jones that in the time of civil rights, "I bet not all of (the people who supported your rights) were black, I bet some of them were white, yellow, brown and all the colors of the rainbows [sic] and I bet that not all of them were straight. This is not about defending one person's rights. This is about everyone's rights."

At the end of Rep. Pabon's lengthy comment, he was asked by Rep. Bob Gardner--who is chair of the House Judiciary Committee-- "Rep. Pabon, is there a question you're asking?"

Pabon answered tongue-in-cheek, "Don't you think?"

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Mayes says the ACLU supports the Civil Unions bill but would prefer if it did not give a pass for child placement agencies to opt out based on religious beliefs.

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Speaking for the civil unions bill, Troy Ard, testifies as an openly-gay man and urges other Republicans to support Rep. Pat Steadman's bill.

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This measure has broad support in the Colorado Bar Association.

I want to point out 2 particular areas that are important in this legislation...This law would provide children with the ability to have two legal parents.

What designated beneficiaries does not do, is establish responsibility.

Moses is now discussing the inability of "designated beneficiaries" to give the "panoply of rights" provided by civil unions.

For instance, "designated beneficiaries" do not protect the economically-disadvantaged spouse if the couple splits.

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"Society will not collapse, but will thrive from the participation of ALL its members."

Lucero testifies that she is bi-sexual and has a girlfriend.

"We are not asking that those who oppose us change their beliefs... I'm not asking you as representatives to change your belief, but allow us to live ours. There is nothing about being gay, bisexual or transexual that requires us to be single. We've accepted so much room for mystery in religion, why can't we accept this one?

We hunger for a place in our society."

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Ana Simon testifies:

I love this woman so much, and I just want the security of knowing I can take care of her the way she takes care of Jeremy (our son) and me.

She's the one I trust to raise a child with...People understand that a civil union means she is the one I want to visit me in the hospital, to make decisions for me if I'm seriously injured or die.

Fran Simon testifies:

If you want stronger communities in Colorado, then vote yes.

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Mario Nicolais, spokesman for Coloradans for Freedom--a conservative group in favor of civil unions-- testifies in support of civil unions says:

This is an incredibly important issue. I think that while Rep. Sonnenberg said that there was an important debate about traffic tickets that deserved a full house, we are talking about civil rights here.

He goes on to add that fighting for civil rights and freedoms are "not new issues" for Republicans.

He argues that "two parents are better than one" and that supporting civil unions would promote the Republican pillar of family values.

Quotes the Bible, 1 John:

He who loves his brother walks in the light and has no cause to stumble. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

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Jack Finlaw, chief legal counsel for Gov. Hickenlooper says "The Governor urges you to vote for Civil Unions."

Finlaw also adds that he is here for himself as a gay person, "a life-long Christian," and a "life-long Republican."

Finlaw said:

"I think it would please me and it would please the Governor if we could have bipartisan support for Civil Unions...

I would say that Civil Unions are recognized as a step above designated beneficiaries."

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Rep. Mark Ferrandino, a sponsor of a similar bill last year says that though the Designated Beneficiary Act that Colorado has is a good law, it's "not enough" for couples, in response to House Speaker Frank McNulty's statement that Colorado already has some protection for same-sex couples.

McNulty is against SB 2

Brad Clark, executive director of One Colorado, testifies that there are some questions he hopes that the committee members ask themselves:

How would you feel if you could not protect the person you love? How you woud feel if you could not hold their hand in an ambulance.

Clark also says that there is more universal understanding about what "civil unions" are versus what "designated beneficiaries" are.

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@ IvanJourno : House sgt told @MarkFerrandino there's a bazillion people signed up 2 testify for pot DUI before civil unions. (bazillion = 35 or so) #coleg

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@ IvanJourno : Latest update to civil unions debate set to start this evening. http://t.co/sF4FOMDW #coleg #copolitics #LGBT

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At noon members of One Colorado and supporters of SB 2 met on the steps of the Denver City and County building to rally in support of the bill before its highly anticipated hearing in the state House Judiciary Committee.

Signs waving at the rally said, "Focus on your own family" and, "Love is love."

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock lead the speeches before handing off the microphone to the city's councilwoman at-large Robin Kneich (read her full remarks here), state Senator and the bill's sponsor Pat Steadman, and state Representative Mark Ferrandino.

During the rally, Ferrandino said:

In the past I have said "It's not a matter of if (we will pass the civil unions bill), it's a matter of when." I'd like to add that it's not a matter of when, it's a matter of now.

Click through the slideshow above for photos of today's One Colorado rally at the Denver City and County building.

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HuffPost will be liveblogging the Civil Unions bill rally and debate, check back for updates!

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Filed by Matt Ferner  |