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Delaware Passes Civil Unions Bill

Delaware Passes Civil Unions Bill


Delaware took a significant step toward equality Thursday when the house of representatives voted to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples. The proposal passed the senate last week, and Gov. Jack Markell intends to sign the bill.

Cheers erupted shortly after 7 p.m. when, in a bipartisan 26 to 15 vote, the Democratic-controlled chamber approved the proposal, which would provide same-sex couples in civil unions with the same rights and responsibilities as married couples, to the extent possible. Comparable same-sex unions, including marriages from other jurisdictions, would be recognized as civil unions in Delaware.

"There are a lot of happy people here," said Equality Delaware president Lisa Goodman in a message to The Advocate. "We made Delaware a fairer and better place for same-sex couples and all families today."

The Delaware Civil Unions and Equality Act of 2011, also known as Senate Bill 30, was sponsored by Sen. David Sokola and Rep. Melanie George. Equality Delaware, a statewide advocacy group formed last year, spearheaded the push for the measure.

"Today, we celebrate a victory for all Delaware families who will have the tools to protect themselves in good times and in bad," said Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese in a statement. "We look forward to Governor Markell signing this bill into law and thank Senator Sokola and Representative George for their leadership on this bill, and Equality Delaware for their tireless dedication."

Delaware, the second smallest U.S. state in area, with a population of 900,000, sits in the densely populated Mid-Atlantic region, where civil unions are available in neighboring New Jersey and advocates hope to pass marriage equality in New York this year. A corporate haven, Delaware also is home to Vice President Joseph Biden.

The office of the vice president did not respond to a request for comment on the vote.

The historic vote followed more than two hours of debate during which house members defeated nine amendments to the bill, including proposals to open civil unions to opposite-sex couples and to require a statewide referendum before the civil unions law could be implemented, Representative George called the referendum proposal "an unlawful and unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority."

Another defeated amendment, offered by an attorney for the antigay Alliance Defense Fund, would have allowed businesses, clergy members, and churches to refuse to facilitate any unions and related events, such as receptions, that conflicted with their religious beliefs.

Last month polling results released by Equality Delaware showed that 62% of voters supported civil unions. Opponents led by the Delaware Family Policy Council charged that the measure would open the door to marriage equality in the state.

Doug Napier, an Alliance Defense Fund attorney, repeated that claim in his testimony on the floor.

"It is riddled with all sorts of unintended consequences," he said, while vowing to challenge the law in court. "Don't be deceived. This bill is a precursor to same-sex marriage."

Another witness, family law attorney Glynis Gibson, expressed concern for the law's potential impact on children. She said the measure would give preference to a stepparent over a biological parent in some instances.

"This legislation is new and it is world-changing. It is life-changing," she said. "And we need to think about what we're doing when we are elevating parties to a civil union to the same level as a stepparent."

Goodman, an attorney as well president of Equality Delaware, responded to Napier in her testimony.

"It's hard to know where to start with those since I don't really think those were legal comments," she said. "This bill does not change the definition of marriage under Delaware law."

Goodman was asked whether Equality Delaware planned to use the civil unions law as a "jumping-off point" to push for marriage, but the question was ruled out of order.

According to HRC, five states currently have laws providing an expansive form of state-level relationship recognition for gay and lesbian couples without offering marriage. States offering such civil unions and domestic partnerships include California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. Earlier this year, Hawaii and Illinois adopted civil union laws that will take effect in June for Illinois and in January 2012 for Hawaii.

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, said in a statement after the Delaware vote, "Civil union provides a welcome measure of protections to same-sex couples and their families, but is no substitute for the freedom to marry and the full measure of respect, clarity, and responsibilities that only marriage brings. A separate legal status designed to both give and withhold, civil union will afford more families in Delaware important legal protections while unfairly and unnecessarily denying them the dignity and respect they deserve and the full measure of security they need. States that have created civil union have found that it falls far short of marriage with all its tangible and intangible significance in our lives, and documented that civil union simply does not work to fully protect families or clarify responsibilities for businesses and others. Many states -- Connecticut, New Hampshire, and even Vermont, which first created civil union -- have since pushed past civil union to marriage itself, recognizing the inadequacy and unfairness of a separate and unequal status."

Despite public opinion and legislative momentum, Goodman said Wednesday that nothing was being taken for granted in the run-up to the final vote. The legislative session in nearby Maryland ended this week without a marriage equality victory after the bill passed the senate, predicted to be the more challenging chamber, only to be yanked in the house when support fell short following a reenergized campaign from religious conservatives.

"I have had Maryland in the forefront of my mind since this happened," said Goodman. "We have been redoubling our efforts. We have essentially been using 'remember Maryland' as our rallying cry."

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