By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado's Democratic governor called on Thursday for a special legislative session to consider a civil unions bill that would grant legal rights to same-sex couples, setting up a potential showdown with Republican lawmakers.
Governor John Hickenlooper said in an executive order calling for the session, due on Monday, that the bill was needed so couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, could "take care of each other and their families."
Hickenlooper has previously told reporters that without the bill, which failed to advance to a vote in the state House of Representatives during the regular session, the state was depriving people of their civil rights.
The governor's action came a day after President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to say that he thinks same-sex marriage should be legal, in a move hailed by Democrats and gay rights groups as a benchmark for civil rights.
Others, including Republican activists and conservative Christian leaders, criticized him for taking up a divisive issue they see as an affront to traditional values.
Nine states already allow civil unions or domestic partnerships for gays and lesbians, while another eight plus the District of Columbia have gone further and allow gay marriage or are awaiting enactment of laws legalizing gay nuptials.
If Colorado's measure becomes law, the state would become only the second in the largely conservative, libertarian-minded Rocky Mountain region to endorse same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships after Nevada did so in 2009.
The state's Republican-controlled House of Representatives had failed to take a vote on the civil unions bill before the regular session ended on Wednesday, drawing condemnation from gay rights groups. A vote had been expected to be close.
Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty, a Republican, has expressed his opposition to the civil unions bill. Under state law, it remains up to lawmakers whether to consider any bill the governor requests them to take up.
Aside from civil unions, Hickenlooper asked lawmakers to address six other subjects, which ranged from funding for the Colorado water conservation board to penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana.
Colorado voters in 2006 passed a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to between a man and a woman.
"We're opposed to civil unions because legally they are used as a stepping stone to same-sex marriage," said Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokeswoman for the policy arm of Colorado-based Christian group Focus on the Family.
"We are, in opposing civil unions, defending the vote of the people," she said.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Vicki Allen)