Mandalyn Starkovich, left, and Kristen Marshall wait for a hearing on Senate Bill 2 to come up in front of the House Judiciary Committee at the State Capitol in Denver, Thursday, May 3, 2012. The Colorado Civil Union Act recently passed the Senate with bipartisan support. The bill would allow same sex couple to enter into civil union. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Craig F. Walker)
DENVER (AP) — 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, Rep. B.J. Nikkel, joined Democrats in approving the bill.
"To me it became an issue of fairness, in terms of trying to treat everybody equally and giving the same rights that I have," said Nikkel, who was one of the "no" votes last year when the plan died in the same committee 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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