DENVER - As a proposal to allow civil unions for gay couples is set to breeze through the Colorado Legislature, a larger battle looms over same-sex marriage.
Senate Democrats stand poised to give initial approval to a civil unions bill Wednesday as the plan comes before a legislative committee for the first time this session. The measure has been turned back in past years, but with Democrats controlling the state House, Senate and governor's office it is expected to pass easily.
Debate over the proposal has been contentious and emotional the last two years. In each of those sessions civil union plans were defeated by House Republicans.
"This is the time that we get to be on the side that wins," said Shawna Kemppainen, 47, who has testified in favor of the bill previously, along with her partner, Lisa Green, 48.
Democrats, though, are guarded about the possibility of marriage for gay couples because the state constitution bans it, and lawmakers take an oath to uphold those laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, is scheduled to hear arguments in March on California's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and that decision could affect Colorado.
Should California's ban be overturned, similar bans - including Colorado's - also would likely be upended and gay marriage supporters could make a new legislative push.
If the ban is upheld, Colorado gay rights advocates would have to settle for civil unions or look further down the line for a constitutional amendment to overturn the same-sex marriage ban.
Opponents of civil unions such as Focus on the Family's CitizenLink say they're concerned that gay marriage is the lawmakers' ultimate goal.
"Laws like civil unions and domestic partnerships have been used in other states to challenge marriage and usher in same-sex marriage" said Carrie Gordon Earll, spokeswoman for CitizenLink.
She said with civil unions all but a certainty in Colorado, her group will be watching to see what the Supreme Court does.
More than a dozen states allow civil unions, domestic partnerships, or gay marriage. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut allowed civil unions before approving gay marriage.
Civil unions grant gay couples rights similar to marriage, including being able to make medical decisions for each other. The legislation also enhances inheritance and parental rights and responsibilities.
Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, will be among those opposing when a committee takes the first vote on civil unions.
"I do consider it a victory that it is not marriage in Colorado," he said.
King and other Republicans argue that civil unions duplicate rights already in state law under a designated beneficiaries act. But supporters of civil unions say that's not the case and that gay couples don't have the same legal protections as married couples.
The matter hits especially close to home for Denver Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, the civil unions sponsor. Steadman sponsored unsuccessful civil union measures in previous sessions and last year lost his longtime partner to cancer.
Steadman said Colorado's constitutional amendment banning gay marriage "will not stand the test of time" and that he was heartened by what President Barack Obama said in his inaugural address Monday.
Speaking about civil rights, Obama said that the country's journey would not be complete "until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law."