By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - A bill to legalize same-sex civil unions in Colorado won final approval from state lawmakers on Tuesday and was expected to be signed into law, reflecting a recent shift to the left in the political balance of power in the Denver statehouse.
Supporters of the Democratic-sponsored measure, which cleared the state House of Representatives on a 39-26 vote, say it would make gay and lesbian couples eligible for the most of the same benefits, protections and responsibilities currently extended only to heterosexual spouses.
Colorado is one of 30 states with a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
Assuming enactment of the newly passed bill, Colorado would join eight states that recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships in lieu of gay marriage, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Another nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage outright. Among those states, Washington state, Maine and Maryland in November became the first in the nation to approve gay marriage at the ballot box.
Republicans, who previously controlled the lower house of Colorado's General Assembly, foiled passage of similar legislation during the past two years.
But Democrats gained a House majority in November's elections, giving them the votes needed to pass a civil unions bill after Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, opened the legislative session in January by urging passage of such a measure.
LARGELY PARTY-LINE VOTES
The bill, which cleared the Democratic-controlled state Senate last month, 21-14, is scheduled to go into effect on May 1 after receiving Hickenlooper's signature.
Although winning passage on mostly party-line votes of Democrats, the measure drew support from one Republican in the Senate and two in the House.
Among other rights, the measure would allow same-sex couples to make vital health decisions for an incapacitated partner, collect survivor benefits after the death of a partner, adopt a partner's child and visit a partner who is incarcerated in prison or confined to a mental health facility.
"This bill is about three simple things: it's about love, it's about family and it's about equality under the law," Colorado House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, an openly gay Democrat and a sponsor of the bill, told fellow lawmakers.
Also on Tuesday, the judiciary committee of the Minnesota state Senate voted 5-3 to send on to the full Senate a bill that would grant same-sex couples the right to marry.
In November, Minnesota voters became the first in the nation to reject a ballot measure proposing a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples.
Before final passage of the civil unions bill in Colorado, lawmakers rejected a number of Republican-sponsored amendments to the bill.
One would have granted faith-based adoption and foster-care agencies an exemption to refuse to place children with same-sex couples on religious grounds.
Catholic Charities, which runs a foster care and adoption service in Colorado, said in a statement that the bill threatens the group's "valuable mission to the community."
CitizenLink, a policy arm of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, also opposed the bill.
"The basic objection is that it mimics marriage, and marriage is an institution that should be held up as an ideal for society, and the only definition of marriage there is one man and one woman," said Bruce Hausknecht of CitizenLink.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan in New York; writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Cynthia Johnston and Jackie Frank)