This is the third article in a three-part series where we’ve asked leading Republicans to weigh in from the conservative perspective on civil unions, and whether they should be allowed in Colorado.

Civil Thoughts on Liberty and Justice For All

By Senator Shawn Mitchell

Senate District 23

I voted against SB 172 to create civil unions. It was a challenging vote. After 13 years in the legislature, it was the first time I remember not participating in debate on a “gay rights” issue. Among many competing thoughts, two were most powerful, and felt in tension with each other: supporting marriage and the parent-child family as the foundation of a sustainable society; and dealing justly and decently with citizens who want only to enjoy domestic tranquility with loved ones.

I’ve long shared the conservative view that you can’t embrace the second without undermining the first; recognizing same sex relationships would accelerate the fraying of society’s commitment to the nuclear family and bonds among mother, father, and children. However, in recent years and for various reasons, that doesn’t feel as clear as it used to.  

Before discussing the possible shift in feeling, I want to explain values and beliefs that make that shift difficult.

It’s tough to respond briefly to words like "freedom," "privacy" and "tolerance" that gay rights supporters think win this argument. They don't because freedom and privacy aren’t the issue. Americans can do pretty much whatever with whomever we want that doesn't involve force or children. There aren’t bedroom cops or government interference, or involvement at all — which turns out to be the problem.  

Advocates for civil unions don’t want to be left alone; they want to be recognized. They want society to engage them on the same terms it engages married couples.

But the state’s interest has always seemed different to me. Government didn’t invent the nuclear family. Rather, public policies evolved to recognize and accommodate it. But accommodate what? Society doesn’t need to congratulate or provide a notarized valentine to adult lovers. They can take care of themselves. Public interest mainly is recognizing and supporting the difficult, expensive, and critical role of nurturing children. The state’s interest in marriage is a stable cradle to raise a civilized generation.

Here, people often play what they think is a trump card: Some gay households have children. Some heterosexual couples don’t, don’t want them or can’t have them. Conservatives who mean it have to sort them out and deny marriage to couples in those categories. Nonsense. The idea of an intrusive state trying to learn and enforce such personal things is both repugnant and totally unnecessary to the conservative view. Law is a broad instrument directed at broad categories. Only the union of male and female can procreate. Statistically, demography reflects biology. To paraphrase Willie Sutton, heterosexual unions are where the children are, or at least where they came from.

Based on this child/family focus, I’ve opposed extending any formal status beyond the union of a man and a woman mainly for the reasons Kevin Lundberg expressed well in his earlier piece. But advocates ask a compelling question: what does the civil union next door do to your marriage? Good point. It does nothing to my marriage, or probably yours. But it may do things to future marriages and the stability of those families and their children.

It could make them less likely in the first place if heterosexual couples choose civil unions over traditional marriage. In European countries with civil unions, significant numbers of heterosexuals opt for the less formal arrangement. As if family weren’t fragile enough, for many children, mommy and daddy aren’t married, they’re under contract.

It further erodes the cultural consensus and social expectation that reinforce marriage as unique, that a man and woman commit not just to each other, but to God and/or society to work and sacrifice for their family. We're sliding from the historic view of a civil and religious ordinance for raising families, to an adult, gratification-centered arrangement that serves the interests of the parties for as long as they feel like it. Attitudes change, and attitudes about commitment, loyalty, and obligation to the next generation seem to be changing for the worse.

Yet, with all that, the years have brought different experiences into focus. I’ve known a number of gay couples with and without children. They're simply trying to pursue happiness. I’ve heard of obstacles they face, practical issues, with property, hospital visitation, insurance, inheritance, etc. True, there are ways to lawyer around most those things. But I’ve considered how some bills in the legislature might affect these friends and their domestic tranquility. And, most relevantly, I’ve wondered whether the diffuse cultural impact on families that I want to guard against would really flow from some of those policies.

Conservatives have long cited other factors eroding family stability, including permissive divorce laws, perverse behaviors enabled by an impersonal welfare state, men who abandon families, fatherless children, increased sexuality among teens and children, and more. The impact of these trends on families and child welfare is direct and devastating.

Considering these things, I wondered if I was focusing on a mote that might touch heterosexual families, and missing a beam squeezing gay households. Maybe recognizing civil unions could blur the focus on two parent homes raising children. But maybe the impact would be minuscule compared to broader trends ravaging families. And maybe the benefits that same-sex households would feel acutely are simply more important and more valuable to them than any speculative and marginal damage to the climate for heterosexual commitment is to others.

That could be borne out in numbers. Many sources don’t accept the claim of a 10% gay population, finding a range of 3 to 6% more credible. And if a quarter or half of them want to enter a civil union, what impact, even under the conservative theories, would come from the small numbers?

The Senate Reader called my name and pulled me from these thoughts. I voted No, and kept pondering, and still do, and wonder if I might round a corner on civil unions.