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Gay marriage approved as Delaware lawmaker comes out

1:48 PM, May 8, 2013   |    comments
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Dover, Del. (Delaware Online) -- Delaware became the 11th state Tuesday to legalize same-sex marriage after a lengthy debate in the state Senate that saw one lawmaker disclose her longtime same-sex relationship and the surprise support of two senators who could have tipped the outcome the other way.

A half-hour after the 12-9 Senate vote, Gov. Jack Markell signed the bill into law on the main stairs in the lobby of Legislative Hall.

"Delaware should be, is and will be, a welcoming place to live, love and raise a family for all who call our great state home," Markell said.

Swing-vote senators Bethany Hall-Long, D-Middletown, and Catherine Cloutier, R-Brandywine Hundred, voted in favor of the legislation. Cloutier was the lone Republican "yes" vote in the Senate and one of two in the General Assembly. Two Senate Democrats, Robert Venables, of Laurel, and Bruce Ennis, of Smyrna, voted no.

Delawareans will be able to enter into same-sex marriages effective July 1. The law abolishes a prohibition against same-sex marriages established in 1996 and replaces a civil unions law passed in 2011.

The law provides a mechanism for converting existing same-sex civil unions established in Delaware to marriages. A year after the effective date, all civil unions will automatically be converted to marriages.

The law states that no church or clergy member will be compelled to solemnize a same-sex marriage. Delaware's existing public accommodation law outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Proponents of the legislation and its sponsoring lawmakers cheered the victory, while those who opposed the measure reacted with shock and promises to unseat the lawmakers who voted for the bill.

Democratic Sen. Karen Peterson, one of the bill's sponsors, said opponents' arguments are rooted in the notion that being gay or lesbian is a choice but that she cannot remember when she chose to love another woman.

Peterson came out publicly for the first time on the Senate floor during debate, referencing her 24-year relationship with her partner.

"Neither of us chose to be gay, any more than heterosexual people chose to be straight," Peterson said. "Nobody gets to make those decisions any more than we decide to be tall, short, black or white. We are what God made us. We don't need to be fixed. We're not broken."

Drawing laughter from the gallery, Peterson added, "If my happiness somehow demeans or diminishes your marriage, then you need to work on your marriage."

"We had some of the best advocates, we had some of the best testimony, we had a public process that was inclusive and transparent and the vote came down on our side," said Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark.

Nicole Theis, president of the Delaware Family Policy Council, said changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples will have broad, untold consequences for society.

"It won't stop here. Making marriage genderless changes the way government views parents. You can expect all government's forms to reflect this. You can also expect further attacks on gender, probably even this session," she said, alluding to a proposal that has not yet been filed that would extend nondiscrimination laws to cover transgender individuals.

Theis also had a warning for Hall-Long and other lawmakers who voted for the bill.

"There are legislators who said they would vote 'no' on redefining marriage. We trusted them. We stood by them. Now we must hold them accountable," she said. "We did poll Sen. Hall-Long's district, because she has very active evangelical churches in her district.

"According to that polling, she will be replaced," Theis said.

In a Facebook message posted minutes before the final vote, Hall-Long wrote: "My vote is guided by my belief in fundamental fairness for all Delawareans."

Markell commended the lawmakers who backed the bill and advocates from the grass-roots group Equality Delaware who wrote the legislation and led the charge for its passage.

"To those of you who have worked tirelessly for years to make today possible, who started working to make this day possible before today was even imaginable, you join the ranks of those great Delawareans," he said. "You've advanced the cause of liberty, equality and dignity in our time."

During a lengthy floor debate on the legislation, opponents of the bill argued it will lead to a flurry of discrimination lawsuits, the stifling of religious freedom and the unraveling of the social fabric.

As in past debates, much of the opposition's argument was rooted in Christian theology.

"Any attempt by government and other secular institutions to abuse and redefine the meaning of marriage is nothing more than an assault on holy scripture, religious institutions and faithful people," said Senate Minority Leader F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford.

"What if I love more than one woman? You think it's a laughing matter, perhaps. What's to stop polygamy from going forth? Once we say we're basing this on love ... where will it stop?

Howard Menaker and Patrick Gossett, of Rebohoth Beach, said they didn't believe until recently that their 34-year relationship would ever be recognized as equal to that of an opposite-sex couple.

"I wouldn't allow myself to think about it until very recently," Menaker said. "As hard as we fought for years and years and years, we took baby steps. And now we are taking huge leaps forward, and it was more than we could have imagined."

The couple, who legally married in Washington, D.C., said they will have a Delaware wedding.

"I think it's generational. I think people understand it's what's right. It's being on the right side of history," Gossett said.

Delaware Online

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