Del. Senate Approves Civil Unions; House Support Anticipated
The state House on Thursday approved a bill offering legal recognition to same-sex couples in Delaware and giving them the same rights and obligations granted to married couples while a bill allowing same-sex civil unions cleared the Senate.
House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf said the administration committee he chairs will consider the Senate bill next Wednesday, and it could be put to a vote in the full House, where it is expected to win quick passage, on Thursday.
Lisa Goodman, president of Equality Delaware, an advocacy group that has spearheaded the bill, was optimistic about its chances in the House but said her group was "not taking anything for granted."
With approval by the House and the signature of Gov. Jack Markell, Delaware would join the ranks of states offering legal recognition to same-sex couples.
Five states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage, and lawmakers in seven other states have established civil unions or domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. Maryland and New York recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, and a handful of other states offer limited protections for same-sex couples, according to Equality Delaware.
The legislation in Delaware would authorize civil unions for same-sex couples effective Jan. 1, 2012, continuing to limit marriage under Delaware law to opposite-sex couples.
Chief sponsor Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, said same-sex couples often face hurdles when dealing with issues such as property transfers, medical decisions and inheritance that married heterosexuals do not.
"We have members of our community who work hard, pay taxes, contribute to our state in so many ways, who do not get society supported benefits that the rest of us take for granted," he said.
Mark Purpura of Equality Delaware said the bill establishes a "rational parallel" to marriage for same-sex couples, who would have all the rights, benefits and obligations applicable to married spouses under Delaware law.
"It is intended to create a spousal type of relationship," he said.
Opponents argue that it is a prelude to establishing same-sex marriage in Delaware, and that it could result in court challenges to having two separate systems of recognizing couples.
"The ultimate goal is same-sex marriage," said Nicole Theis, executive director of the Delaware Family Policy Council. "... Marriage is about bringing male and female together, and that is good."
When asked by Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, whether she believed Delaware should have same-sex marriages, Goodman said only that a poll showed that most Delawareans support civil unions.
After Lawson continued to press Goodman for an answer, Elsmere Democrat Patricia Blevins protested that the question was not relevant to the bill, with Democratic Lt. Gov. Matt Denn, the presiding officer, siding with Blevins.
Opponents also argued that the bill will result in additional costs to the state from increased employee benefits, and that language in the legislation is not adequate to protect religious institutions and others from liability for refusing to allow or participate in same-sex ceremonies.
"There needs to be some work done if this body is serious about protecting religious liberties in Delaware," said Austin Nimocks, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative religious rights organization.
Before approving the bill, Senate lawmakers defeated two amendments offered by Sen. Robert Venables of Laurel, one of only two Democrats to vote against the measure.
One amendment would have allowed civil unions for heterosexual couples as well as homosexuals. The other would have required that a majority of Delaware residents approve civil unions in a statewide referendum before they could take effect.