Conscience and Constitution

Itís hard to sum up this past week, as my wish for political pragmatism as the session winds up gave way to the controversial issues stacked on the Senate calendar.

In particular, we debated allowing civil unions in Colorado, followed the next day by the resolution to send to the U.S. Congress, urging the adoption of meaningful religious exemptions allowed under the federal health care act.

The Senate Democratic majority decides the legislative calendar, so the timing of these legislative proposals back to back was purposeful and perplexing, given the lateness in the session and the political polarization they were bound to provoke.

To make two long stories short, I spoke and voted in favor of both of these bills, which, to a casual observer might be hard to understand since one is characterized as a liberal position while the other is conservative.

Iíve mentioned before the challenge of representing a very politically diverse district. On bills like these, thereís no universal district position, no common sense measuring stick to use. At these times, I turn to my own thoughts and principles, knowing that either choice in voting brings dissatisfied voters and future political consequences. Thatís the price I pay for voting my conscience, and I accept that fact.

The foundation for my vote on both of these bills is shaped by my view of the U.S. Constitution, which I swore to uphold each time Iíve been elected. While the Constitution doesnít provide exact answers, its guiding principles are what I think of as I arrive at how Iíll vote on these difficult, divisive issues.

For me, voting for civil unions is an extension of the 14th Amendment of the Bill of Rights, providing for the governmentís promise of equal protection of all citizens. Equal protection means to be treated with justice, regardless of an individualís personal characteristics.

The bill before us provided that no one of any faith would be required to perform a civil union and itís a governmental, not religious, status, which is why itís called a civil union. Coloradoís state constitution doesnít allow gay marriage and this bill recognizes that.

I believe equal protection means a couple, straight or gay, in a committed relationship, and possibly raising children, should be able to achieve a status recognized by the government that will provide certain family rights and responsibilities.

On to the next topic.While challenging to implement, the First Amendmentís right to religious freedom is clear that the government can not infringe upon this most personal and individual right. The intersection of the new national health insurance mandate and religious faiths such as Christian Scientists, Jehovahís Witnesses, Catholics and other faith traditions is complex and problematic.

Although Iím not a practicing Quaker, many in my family tree were and are, spanning hundreds of years. Protecting religious freedom, even if inconvenient for national health care policy, is a basic, fundamental American principle.

We appropriately accommodate those who object to military service and those who refuse vaccinations for religious reasons.Why arenít we even trying to find a way to provide employers a means to sponsor health insurance that doesnít violate their faith principles?

Supporting these controversial measures is tied together by my understanding and respect for the Constitution. Reasonable people will disagree with me. I accept that, too.

Ellen Roberts represents Senate District 6 in Coloradoís General Assembly. The district encompasses Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata, Archuleta, Montrose, San Miguel, San Juan and Ouray counties. Contact Sen. Roberts by phone at (303) 866-4884 or e-mail