House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, speaks on the Civil Unions Bill in the House Chamber at the Capitol on Monday, March 11, 2013. Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs looks on at right. The proposal got initial approval with a voice vote in the Democratic-controlled House on Monday. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
DENVER (AP) — Civil unions for gay couples were a rallying cry for Democrats who took control of the Colorado House in last year's elections and vowed an early vote on the proposal. They kept their promise Tuesday, passing a bill giving gay couples rights similar to marriage that now goes to the governor's desk, where it's expected to be signed.
The vote punctuates a dramatic political shift in Colorado, where voters approved a gay-marriage ban seven years ago — meaning civil unions are the only option for gay couples in the state for now. That could change with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage bans in the coming months.
"We really do stand on the edge of history," said Democratic Rep. Pete Lee. "For some in this chamber, this is the reason why we are here."
Applause erupted in the Capitol as the bill won final passage Tuesday on a 39-26 House vote, with two Republicans joining all Democrats to approve the measure.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has said he plans to sign civil unions into law. It's not clear yet when that will happen, but the law will take effect May 1.
Once the measure is signed, Colorado will join a dozen other states that have civil unions or similar laws. Six states allow gay marriage.
Colorado's measure grants gay couples rights similar to marriage, including enhanced inheritance and parental rights. People in civil unions also would have the ability to make medical decisions for their partners.
The bill's approval underscores the changing political climate in a western state that traditionally has had deep conservative roots but has become more moderate over the past decade.
In 1992, Colorado voters approved a ban on municipal anti-discrimination laws to protect gays. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court said the law, known as Amendment 2, was unconstitutional, but not before some branded Colorado a "hate state."
Democrats campaigned on civil unions and rallied voter support in November's elections after Republicans last year used their one-vote majority in the House to prevent the measure from being debated.
"Elections have consequences, and today Senate Bill 11 passed," said Republican Rep. Frank McNulty, the former House speaker.
Democrats now control both chambers of the Legislature, and the party elected Colorado's first gay House speaker.
"This wasn't a choice. This is who I am. People who are gay or lesbian, this is who we are," said Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino. He said the bill was about granting equal legal rights to everyone.
He asked for a yes vote "to honor love, family, and equality."
The proposal has been one of the most emotional and contentious of the last three sessions. Gay couples have urged lawmakers to pass the bill, saying it would grant them legal protections they don't have because they're not allowed to marry.
Democrats had enough votes last year to pass the bill, but Republicans refused to bring it up for debate, killing it and several other bills in the waning hours of the session.
Republicans have argued the bill undermines the institution of marriage and provides no religious exemptions for those opposed to civil unions.
"I have long-standing concerns about the way in which religion isn't tolerated by some down here at the state Capitol," McNulty said. "I continue to have those concerns."
Democrats contend the Republican suggestions to amend the bill would open the door to discrimination.
Read the bill: http://goo.gl/QOEjH
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