Recognition of same-sex unions in Colorado

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The U.S. state of Colorado has provided limited recognition of same-sex unions in the form of designated beneficiary agreements since July 1, 2009, and as civil unions since May 1, 2013. Same-sex marriage was banned by the state constitution in 2006.

Designated beneficiary agreements grant limited rights, such as hospital and jail visitation rights, control of funeral arrangements, death benefits, and the right of a surviving partner to be recognized as next of kin. Civil unions provide rights comparable to those enjoyed by married different-sex couples. When Colorado enacted civil union legislation in March 2013, effective May 1, 2013, Colorado became the third state to provide the status of civil unions to both same-sex couples and different-sex couples, as Hawaii and Illinois had until both of these states allowed same-sex marriage in 2013.[citation needed]

In 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in the case of Kitchen v. Herbert found the Colorado's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, but stayed its ruling pending review by the United States Supreme Court. Some counties have issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite the stay.


In 1975, the Boulder County Clerk issued marriage licenses to several same-sex couples after the local district attorney interpreted Colorado's statutes, which used the phrase "any two persons", to be gender-neutral with respect to marriage. The state attorney general issued a contrary opinion that those marriages were invalid.[1] When one of those married in Boulder tried to use it to sponsor his husband for immigration purposes, he lost his case, Adams v. Howerton, in federal court.[2]

Amendments to the state constitution[edit]

On November 3, 1992, Colorado voters approved Amendment 2, which added language to the state constitution that prohibited the state and all of its subdivisions from allowing "homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships" to provide the basis for any "claim any minority status, quota preferences, protected status or claim of discrimination." In 1994, the Colorado Supreme Court found the amendment unconstitutional.[3] In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Romer v. Evans that the amendment, because it "allows discrimination against homosexuals and prevents the state from protecting them", was "motivated by animus towards homosexuals" and violated their rights under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[4]

In November 2006, voters approved by a 55-45% margin an amendment to the state constitution that limited recognition of same-sex unions by banning same-sex marriages and common law marriages between same-sex partners.[5] The amendment did not mention civil unions or other forms of relationships.

Colorado Domestic Partnership Benefits and Responsibilities Act of 2006[edit]

In 2006, a voter-initiated referendum attempted to pass the Colorado Domestic Partnership Benefits and Responsibilities Act, which would have established domestic partnerships similar to a civil union, but more limited. A UCLA study of the impact domestic partnerships for same-sex couples would have on Colorado's budget concluded that allowing same-sex couples to enter into domestic partnerships under the "Colorado Domestic Partnership Benefits and Responsibilities Act" would result in a net gain of approximately $1.2 million each year for the state, resulting from savings on expenditures on state means-tested public benefits programs and from an increase in sales tax revenue from registration celebrations.[6]

The referendum specified that a partnership is not a marriage, which "consists of the union of one man and one woman." In the November general election, the proposal was defeated by a margin of 47% for, 53% against.

Designated Beneficiary Agreements Act of 2009[edit]

Since July 1, 2009, unmarried couples in Colorado have been able to enter a designated beneficiary agreement – similar to reciprocal beneficiary relationships in Hawaii – which grants them limited rights, including making funeral arrangements for each other, receiving death benefits, and inheriting property without a will.[7] The law, House Bill 1260,[8] was enacted by the legislature and is valid for estate planning, property purchases, medical decisions and certain benefits such as life insurance and retirement-plan disbursements. It was signed by Governor Bill Ritter on April 9, 2009.[9]

Civil unions legislation[edit]


On February 14, 2011, Colorado State Senator Pat Steadman and State Representative Mark Ferrandino, both openly gay Democrats, introduced the Colorado Civil Union Act.[10] It would have allowed both same-sex couples and different-sex couples to form unions. The act was co-sponsored by nearly all Democrats in the legislature.[11] The legislation as first introduced addressed financial responsibility of partners, medical decision-making and treatment, inheritance, ability to designate a partner as retirement beneficiary, the ability to adopt the child of one's partner, insurance of partner, family leave benefits, responsibility of conservator, guardian, or personal representative.[12] A later amendment to the bill added a religious exemption, specifying that no religious official would be required to officiate at a same-sex union ceremony.

On March 24, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed the bill on a vote of 23–12, with all Senate Democrats and 3 Senate Republicans voting in favor. The Republican-controlled House defeated it in the Judiciary Committee on a 5–6 party line vote on March 31.[13] Ferrandino believed the legislation would have passed in the House handily citing commitments made to him by several House Republicans.[14] Governor John Hickenlooper, a known supporter of LGBT rights when he was mayor of Denver, had indicated support for same-sex civil unions.[15]


The Senate passed the civil union bill by 23–12, the same vote as in 2011, on April 27, 2012.[16] Republicans held a 33–32 majority in the House of Representatives,[17] where a committee voted down the legislation on May 15, 2012, during a special session called to consider the legislation.[18]


Another version of the Colorado Civil Union Act was introduced on January 9, 2013.[19] Unlike earlier versions of the legislation, it did not include language allowing adoption agencies to withhold their services from a couple in a same-sex civil union.[20] On January 23, the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Constitutional Committee approved the legislation with three Democrats in favor and two Republicans opposed.[21] On February 11, the Senate Floor passed the legislation on a 21-14 vote, with all Democrats and one Republican in favor and only Republicans in opposition.[22] The House Judiciary Committee, House Appropriations Committee and the House Constitutional Committee approved the legislation a week before the House Floor approved the legislation on March 12, 2013, by a vote of 39-26, with all Democrats and 2 Republicans voting for the bill and only Republicans in opposition.[18][23] Governor Hickenlooper signed the legislation on March 21. The Colorado Civil Union Act allows two adults to enter a civil union "regardless of the gender of either party".[24] The law took effect on May 1, 2013. Colorado became the ninth state to offer such a status in addition to the nine that–along with the District of Columbia–recognize same-sex marriage.[25]

Various religious groups had very different reactions to the new law. Following the House vote, Denver's Roman Catholic Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila purported that "The ability for religious-based institutions to provide foster care and adoption services for Colorado's children is now dangerously imperiled". However, other religious groups saw no problems with the law. Lutheran Family Services, another religious-based agency that facilitates adoptions in Colorado, said it has no plans to withdraw services from Colorado in light of the bill's passage.[26]


Governor Hickenlooper signed a bill permitting joint state income tax filing for civil union and out-of-state same-sex married couples.[27]

On February 19, 2014, nine same-sex couples, some unmarried and some married in other jurisdictions, filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the state's definition of marriage and arguing that civil unions have created a "second-class level of citizenship" for gays and lesbians. The suit, McDaniel-Miccio v. Hickenlooper, named Governor Hickenlooper and the Denver City Clerk as defendants. The clerk has expressed support for same-sex marriage.[28] Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, announced he would defend the state constitution's definition of marriage.[29]

Provisions of the Civil Union Act[edit]

In nearly all respects, the law treats civil-union partners like married persons: "A party to a civil union has the rights, benefits, protections, duties, obligations, responsibilities, and other incidents under law as are granted to or imposed upon spouses."[30] However, the Act forbids interpreting civil unions as equivalent to marriages: "The provisions of this article shall not be construed to create a marriage between the parties to a civil union or alter the public policy of this state, which recognizes only the union of one man and one woman as a marriage."

Parties to a civil union are not allowed to file a joint state income tax return.[31] Legislation enacted in February 2014 links state tax filing status to federal tax filing status, thereby enabling same-sex couples married out-of-state to file joint state income tax returns. This does not apply to civil union partners, unless they marry out-of-state.[32][33]

Same-sex marriage[edit]

Kitchen v. Herbert[edit]

Main article: Kitchen v. Herbert

On June 25, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in the case of Kitchen v. Herbert set precedent for same-sex marriage in Colorado and other states within its jurisdiction, but stayed its ruling pending review by the U.S. Supreme Court.[34][35] The Boulder County clerk immediately began issuing marriage licenses despite the stay.[36] After a state district court refused to stop the clerk (see Ruling in Colorado ex rel. Suthers below), Denver County and Pueblo County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples as well.[37]

Brinkman v. Long[edit]

Main article: Brinkman v. Long

After being denied a marriage license, a lesbian couple filed a lawsuit, Brinkman v. Long, on October 30, 2013, in the Seventeenth Judicial District seeking to overturn the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.[38] They were later joined by additional plaintiffs. On July 9, 2014, Judge C. Scott Crabtree ruled that the ban violated plaintiffs' guarantees of equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He stayed his ruling pending the outcome of appeals.[39]

After the Boulder County clerk issued licenses to same-sex couples following the Tenth Circuit ruling in Kitchen, the state Attorney General tried without success to persuade a court to issue a restraining order against the practice. In response to that court action the Denver County clerk began issuing licenses to same-sex couples as well.[40]

Public opinion[edit]

An August 2011 Public Policy Polling survey found that Colorado voters were evenly split regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage, with 45% in support and 45% opposed, while 10% were not sure. A separate question on the same survey found that 71% of respondents supported legal recognition for same-sex couples, with 40% supporting same-sex marriage and 31% supporting civil unions, while 27% opposed all legal recognition and 2% were not sure.[41]

A December 2011 Public Policy Polling survey found that 47% of Colorado voters supported the legalization of same-sex marriage, while 43% opposed it and 10% were not sure. A separate question on the same survey found that 76% of respondents supported legal recognition for same-sex couples, with 42% supporting same-sex marriage and 34% supporting civil unions, while 23% opposed all legal recognition and 2% were not sure.[42]

An April 2012 Public Policy Polling survey found that 53% of Colorado voters support the legalization of same-sex marriage, while 40% oppose it and 7% are not sure. A separate question on the same survey found that 75% of respondents support legal recognition for same-sex couples, with 47% supporting same-sex marriage and 28% supporting civil unions, while 22% oppose all legal recognition and 2% are not sure.[43]

A December 2013 Public Policy Polling survey found that 53% of Colorado voters support the legalization of same-sex marriage, while 39% oppose it and 8% are not sure. A separate question on the same survey found that 80% of respondents support legal recognition for same-sex couples, with 48% supporting same-sex marriage and 32% supporting civil unions, while 18% oppose all legal recognition and 2% are not sure.[44]

A March 2014 Public Policy Polling survey found that 56% of Colorado voters support the legalization of same-sex marriage, while 36% oppose it and 8% are not sure. A separate question on the same survey found 49% supporting same-sex marriage and 30% supporting civil unions, while 18% oppose all legal recognition and 3% are not sure.[45]

An April 2014 Quinnipiac University poll found that 61% of Colorado voters support the legalization of same-sex marriage, while 33% oppose it and 7% are not sure.[46]

A July 2014 Public Policy Polling survey found that 55% of Colorado voters support the legalization of same-sex marriage, while 38% oppose it and 7% are not sure. A separate question on the same survey found 50% supporting same-sex marriage and 29% supporting civil unions, while 19% oppose all legal recognition and 3% are not sure.[47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Eskridge, Jr., et al., William N. (2006). Gay Marriage: for Better or for Worse?: What We've Learned from the Evidence. NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 22–3. 
  2. ^ Leagle, Inc.: Adams v. Howerton, 486 F. Supp. 1119 (C.D.Cal.1980). Accessed July 30, 2011
  3. ^ Solotoff, Lawrence (2006). Sex Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in the Work Place. NY: Law Journal Press. pp. 1–14. 
  4. ^ Koppelman, Andrew (2002). The Gay Rights Question in Contemporary American Law. University of Chicago Press. pp. 6ff. 
  5. ^ "Colorado Amendment 43, Definition of Marriage (2006)". Ballotopedia. Retrieved January 24, 2013. 
  6. ^ M.V. Lee Badgett, Brad Sears, Roger Lee, and Danielle MacCartney, "The Impact of the Colorado Domestic Partnership Act on Colorado's State Budget" (October 1, 2006). The Williams Institute. Paper badgett_2.
  7. ^ "Ritter signs bill that will help gay couples". The Denver Post. Associated Press. April 9, 2009. Retrieved April 10, 2009. 
  8. ^ House Bill 1260
  9. ^ Ingold, John (April 10, 2009). "Law eases estate planning for unwed and gay couples". Denver Post. Retrieved April 10, 2009. 
  10. ^ Senate Bill 11-172
  11. ^ Tomasic, John (February 15, 2011). "Civil unions supporters go old school, message lawmakers with construction paper notes". Colorado Independent. Retrieved January 24, 2013. 
  12. ^ One Colorado. FACT SHEET: SB 172 Colorado Civil Union Act.
  13. ^ House panel kills bill on civil unions on 6-5 party-line vote
  14. ^ Bartels, Lynn. "Democratic sponsors fear for fate of Colorado civil-unions bill". The Denver Post. Retrieved April 3, 2011. 
  15. ^ Tomosaic, John. "Hickenlooper: 'Civil rights, just like civil unions, should apply to everyone equally'". Colorado Independent. Retrieved April 3, 2011. 
  16. ^ Stokols, Eli (April 26, 2012). "Civil unions bill passes Senate, heads to House". KDVR. Retrieved January 24, 2013. 
  17. ^ Garcia, Nic (January 5, 2012). "More twists and turns as Colorado legislature wrestles with civil unions". LGBTQ Nation. Retrieved January 24, 2013. 
  18. ^ a b Frosch, Dan (March 12, 2013). "Colorado Legalizes Civil Unions for Same-Sex Couples". New York Times. Retrieved March 13, 2013. 
  19. ^ Moreno, Ivan (January 9, 2013). "First Colo. bills address gay rights, guns, unions". Denver Post. Retrieved January 24, 2013. 
  20. ^ Rittiman, Brandon (January 25, 2013). "Catholic adoption agencies vow not to serve gay couples". Retrieved January 29, 2013. 
  21. ^ Bartels, Lynn (January 24, 2013). "As expected, Senate passes Colorado civil unions bill". Denver Post. Retrieved January 31, 2013. 
  22. ^ "Colorado Senate Gives Final Approval To Civil Unions". CBS Denver. February 11, 2013. Retrieved February 11, 2013. 
  23. ^ Coffman, Keith (March 13, 2013). "Colorado lawmakers approve bill for same-sex civil unions". Reuters. Retrieved March 13, 2013. 
  24. ^ C.R.S 14-15-104 (a)
  25. ^ Moreno, Ivan (March 21, 2013). "Civil Unions Signed into Law in Colorado". Associated Press. Retrieved August 23, 2014. 
  26. ^ Kyle, Sarah Jane (March 12, 2013). "Catholic Charities: Adoption services 'imperiled' by civil unions passage". The Coloradoan. Retrieved March 13, 2013. 
  27. ^ "Joint Tax-Filing For Gays Signed In Colorado". February 27, 2014. Retrieved April 5, 2014. 
  28. ^ Hendrick, Thomas (February 19, 2014). "9 couples file lawsuit challenging Colo. gay marriage ban". KDVR. Retrieved March 17, 2014. 
  29. ^ Lamp, Mike (March 10, 2014). "Colo. attorney general to defend same-sex marriage ban". Colorado Public Radio. Retrieved March 17, 2014. 
  30. ^ Section 14-15-107 of the Colorado Civil Union Act, SB 13-011
  31. ^ "What Rights Will Colorado's Civil Unions Bill Provide?". Yahoo!. Retrieved June 27, 2013. 
  32. ^ "Colorado bill would recognize gay marriage- in taxes only". January 7, 2014. 
  33. ^ "Colo. governor signs bill allowing joint tax-filing for married same-sex couples". LGBTQ Nation. February 27, 2014. 
  34. ^ "Nearly simultaneous decisions strike down gay marriage bans". CNYCentral. The Associated Press. June 25, 2014. Retrieved June 25, 2014. 
  35. ^ Canham, Matt (June 25, 2014). "Answering your questions on the same-sex marriage ruling". The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved June 25, 2014. 
  36. ^ Aguilar, John (June 25, 2014). "Boulder County begins issuing same-sex marriage licenses; AG says no". The Denver Post. Retrieved June 25, 2014. 
  37. ^ "Denver clerk begins issuing same-sex marriage licenses". The Denver Post. July 10, 2014. Retrieved July 10, 2014. 
  38. ^ "Couple files suit against Colorado gay marriage ban". FOX21 News. November 1, 2013. Retrieved April 8, 2014. 
  39. ^ C. Scott Crabtree, Colorado District Judge (July 9, 2014). "Summary Judgment Order, Brinkman v. Long, No. 13-CV-32572, and McDaneil-Miccio v. Colorado, No. 14-CV-30731". Colorado Seventeenth Judicial District Court, Adams County ( 
  40. ^ Murray, Jon; Nicholson, Kieran (July 10, 2014). "Denver clerk begins issuing same-sex marriage licenses". The Denver Post. 
  41. ^ Colorado loves Hickenlooper, Bennet would rout Buck in re-do. August 11, 2011. Retrieved April 5, 2014. 
  42. ^ Colorado favors gay marriage, marijuana use, loves Tebow
  43. ^ Coloradans Support Gay Marriage
  44. ^ Coloradans Support Gay Marriage
  45. ^ CO voters rate marijuana legalization a success, support gay marriage
  46. ^ Colorado Voters Feel Good About Legalized Marijuana, Quinnipiac University Poll Finds; Support For Same-Sex Marriage Almost 2-1
  47. ^ Colorado Survey Results

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