CHEYENNE -- Legislation that would have made Wyoming the third state to recognize civil unions narrowly failed in the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.
The 5-4 vote to defeat House Bill 150 came after hours of impassioned testimony from supporters who said civil unions would give same-sex couples basic rights and opponents who claimed civil unions were a thinly disguised stepping stone to gay marriage.
But state Reps. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, and Frank Peasley, R-Douglas, who cast the deciding votes against the bill, opposed the proposal not on ideological grounds, but rather because they worried the wording of the bill -- which almost exactly mirrored the rights and responsibilities Wyoming law lists for marriage -– could lead to legal pitfalls in the future.
For example, Peasley pointed to a part of the bill stating that in a Wyoming civil union, like a marriage, the man in the partnership would be considered the father if the woman gets pregnant.
"What if it's two women that get into a civil union and one of them's pregnant?" Peasley asked. "How do we work that one?"
State Rep. Cathy Connolly, the Laramie Democrat who sponsored the bill, answered that "those were sticky wicket questions that might end up in court."
Nicholas, who supports civil unions in theory, also said Wyoming law already provides many of the same legal benefits the legislation sought to give civil union partners. For example, he said, whenever two Wyomingites who have joint assets split up, state courts have an established process for deciding how their property and assets should be divided.
Nicholas and Peasley, like a majority of Wyoming legislators, believe marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Earlier this week, the Wyoming Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and the House narrowly approved a bill prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriages and civil unions from out of state.
On Friday, Judiciary Committee members killed a different bill by Connolly that would have legalized gay marriage outright; no committee members even moved to vote on the legislation, House Bill 149.
However, many anti-gay marriage legislators this session have said they see civil unions as an acceptable compromise -– so long, Nicholas said, as civil unions aren't just marriage by another name.
"There are ways to recognize a civil union -– you can try and put it together in a one-page bill," Nicholas said. "All you have to do is say you'll recognize [out-of-state] civil unions here as being a binding contract."
However, much of the two hours of testimony the Judiciary Committee heard prior to its vote was focused less on the nuances of law and more on the merits of gay relationships and same-sex marriage rights.
Supporters of civil unions said same-sex couples needed to be given the same basic rights heterosexual couples enjoy, while opponents said that civil unions were a springboard toward legalizing gay marriage, which they said would harm society.
State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said establishing civil unions is about more than simply recognizing a legal contract.
"When you love someone, you want to settle down together. You want to have a life with them. You want to go into that duty and obligation you have for another human being to care for them in sickness and health. Currently, [same-sex couples] can't do that," Zwonitzer said. "Civil unions provide that duty and that obligation for them to be committed, to care for one another, and have a life that they can build together."
But Brian Raum, a senior attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian non-profit organization, said proponents of HB150 were simply trying to use civil unions as a "stepping stone" to allowing gay marriages.
"Those who support the passage of a civil unions law –- even those here today -– will be the same individuals and organizations who will then say that civil union laws create second-class citizen status for same-sex couples," Raum said. "And not only that -– that it creates a constitutional claim that requires, then, the state to redefine marriage through the court system."
Theresa Thompson, a Cheyenne chiropractor, said contrary to the media's portrayal of gay couples as loving and healthy, there were "mental and physical health risks involved" with homosexual relationships. When Thomson went into anatomical detail about the health risks of gay sex, state Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, interrupted to object.
At the suggestion of Judiciary Committee Chairman Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, Throne left the committee room until after Thomson finished speaking.
Contact capital bureau reporter Jeremy Pelzer at 307-632-1244 or firstname.lastname@example.org
How they voted
Here's how members of the Wyoming House Judiciary Committee voted Friday on House Bill 150, which would have established civil unions in Wyoming.
In favor (4): Barbuto, Brown, Greene, Throne.
Against (5): Brechtel, Cannady, Krone, Nicholas, Peasley.