Sixteen states now have some kind of official recognition of gay relationships.  A bill making its way through the state legislature would make Colorado the 17th.

Five years ago, Colorado voters amended the state constitution to say that only a man and a woman can be “married.”  So with gay marriage off the table, Democratic senator Pat Steadman wants the next best thing -- the legal rights of marriage, if not the name.

STEADMAN:  "There are those in our society today who have so far been left out.  Their families are not recognized, they are not offered and afforded the protections and benefits of state law."

Steadman himself is gay.  And as he presented his civil unions bill to the Senate’s Judiciary committee, he was  flanked by scores of people in just the situation he was describing. 

STEADMAN: "There are aspects of Senate Bill 172 that deal with really all of the trials and tribulations that life throws at us.  Everything from birth to death, from accidents and hospitalization, from disputes when relationships end."

More than a dozen people provided real life examples of what Steadman was talking about.  One woman told the commitee she has no custody rights after a breakup, because she isn’t the biological parent of the son she helped raise.  A couple described how difficult and costly it can be to cobble together some of the legal rights married couples get automatically.  And Jesse Ulibarri talked about the difficulties when his partner went into the hospital for surgery.

ULIBARRI:  "unfortunately for me, at the hospital where we went, I was asked continually, “what is your relationship with this person,” and “this is visiting hours for family only.”  And regardless of the fact that I had power of attorney, regardless of the fact that I had this piece of paper, I wasn’t treated with the basic dignity to care for my partner and to be there with my son."

Fran Simon echoed that concern, that she and her partner might not be treated like a family during emergencies.

SIMON: "Today we are seeking the basic protections that a committed couple needs, that are even more important now

that we are parents.  Jeremy, like every child should be able to grow up with the security knowing that his parents' relationship is recognized by his state's legal system."

Not everyone in the gay community is supporting the bill though.  Tom Carlin married his husband in California while it was allowed by the state -- and he wants to keep the focus in Colorado on full marriage rights.

CARLIN: "If you pass civil unions you will have given us something, we call it crumbs, instead of the entire cake.  You will also be driving a stake through the hearts of those fighting for marriage equality in Colorado.  Civil unions will be an excuse not to upgrade us to marriage."

Civil unions would grant all the state rights that married couples get -- but wouldn’t change their status with the federal government.  Partners couldn’t filed joint federal taxes or benefit from each other’s social security.  And their union wouldn’t be recognize in lots of other states. 

For most opponents to the bill, though, the fear is that civil unions would be one step closer to gay marriage.  And that’s something many said would undermine the religious and moral foundations of society.  Roger Ingus is pastor of the Prevailing Word Ministry in Littleton.

INGUS: "We all remember the story of Sodom and Gommorah.  The breakdown of the family structure becomes rampant when homosexuality is introduced and when it’s allowed and when its embraced."

Republican senator Kevin Lundberg echoed those concerns at the end of the hearing, when he explained why he was voting against the bill.  Lundberg described the whole effort as a violation of the will of the voters.

LUNDBERG: "It’s kind of an end run around the constitution that says marriage is one man and one woman to say, “but if we call it civil unions we can make it something other than what the constitution says."

Lundberg points out that five years ago, at the same time voters amended the constitution, they also rejected an initiative to create civil unions. 

But it was Lundberg in the minority last night -- he and two other Republican senators voted against the bill.  Republican Ellen Roberts sided with Democrats to pass it six to three.

Backers of civil unions celebrated last night’s vote, but the legislation has a long way to go.  Many of these people will likely be back at the legislature for the House Committee.  And with Republicans in control there, the outcome could be very different.