Gov. Jack Markell

LISA KEEN  |  Keen News Service

Just minutes before the Delaware Senate was set to vote on its marriage equality bill Tuesday, a Democrat senator who had been quiet about how she would vote announced on her Facebook page that she was a yes. The announcement by Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, who represents Dover, the state capital, came just minutes after the city’s other Democratic senator, Karen Peterson, came out as gay on the floor during debate.

The final roll call vote, after three hours of debate, was 12-9, with the gallery erupting into loud and prolonged applause.

Just minutes later, Democratic Gov. Jack Markell signed the bill, making Delaware the 11th state (plus the District of Columbia) to provide for equal protection under its marriage laws.

Meanwhile, a Minnesota House Ways and Means Committee gave the marriage equality bill there a green light Monday, and the House floor is scheduled to vote on the measure Thursday. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is lobbying actively for the measure.

And Illinois is also poised to take a final vote on its marriage equality bill this week. The state senate passed the bill in February; the House bill needs 60 votes to pass.

Tuesday’s debate in Delaware sounded at times as if marriage for same-sex couples was a completely novel idea with numerous unforeseen “consequences.” One senator asked if the marriage equality law would still allow businesses to discriminate against gay couples. (The state of Delaware already has a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.) Another said gays were attempting to secure marriage in an effort to feel normal, made a reference to the “Queen James Bible,” and lamented that it would lead to a bill to address the concerns of “transgenders.” One speaker suggested the bill was taking control of children from parents and giving it to the government. Another said it would lead to polygamy.

Sen. Robert Marshall, one of four Democrats whose vote was not known before Tuesday, noted that it took hundreds of years to assure that blacks and women had equal rights.

“No one in this chamber would support laws that prohibited a black person from marrying a white person, yet many states did so,” said Marshall. “Is the right to choose a life partner any different?” He said he supported civil unions two years ago, but that he considered it an incremental step toward allowing marriage.

“I have concluded that it is the fundamental civil right to choose our life partner,” said Marshall, adding that he would vote for the bill. That signaled the bill needed just one more vote to pass.

Next up, was another Democrat whose vote was not known prior to Tuesday, Sen. Robert Venables. Venables said he, too, thought civil unions was a step toward eventual recognition of marriage, but unlike Marshall, he voted against civil unions two years ago.

“What really they want is to feel comfortable in their lifestyle and I don’t see anything wrong with that,” said Venables, but he said allowing same-sex marriage jeopardizes the sanctity of marriage.

Noting that President Barack Obama had indicated his support for marriage for same-sex couples, Venables said: “I’ve not so far evolved. I wonder what’s wrong with me? I don’t wish anybody ill will but I don’t see why civil unions couldn’t be enough.”

In Delaware, legislators are allowed to invite guests to the floor to make certain points. Opponents of the bill invited a spokesman from an anti-gay group, the Alliance Defense Fund, to say the bill was a tool of LGBT activists to label people who support “traditional” marriage as bigots, force adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples, and deny parents the right to opt their children out of curricula that recognizes same-sex marriage.
Teachers, said ADF’s Jordan Lorence, would be “forced” to teach things they don’t believe in.

Sen. Harris McDowell expressed dismay at Lorence’s getting far afield of the measure on the floor. Nevertheless, an opponent’s witness later during the discussion claimed to have a recording of a Russian journalist speaking to a group of cheering gay activists and saying the purpose of marriage equality was the “dissolution of the institution of marriage.”

Bill supporter Sen. David Sokola invited Mark Purpura to the floor to explain the purpose of the bill. Purpura said the bill was would allow the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and convert current civil unions into marriage licenses. The bill, he explained, repealed a ban on same-sex marriage passed in 1996 but would not require any clergy or religious official to solemnize a marriage for a same-sex couple.

Sokola also called to the floor the head of Equality Delaware’s leader Lisa Goodman, who attempted to explain why she told the Legislature two years ago that a civil unions bill was not a step along the way to a marriage equality bill.

“We would be here today, regardless of whether civil unions had happened,” said Goodman. She said the “rapid shift” of public opinion has inspired marriage equality supporters to come back and seek equal rights in marriage.

Sen. Karen Peterson, a Democrat representing the capital city of Dover and who reportedly had not come out as gay publicly before the debate, talked about exchanging vows with her female partner and added, “If my happiness somehow demeans or diminishes your marriage, then you need to work on your marriage.”

Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Democrat, noted that Delaware was once one of 16 states that prohibited interracial marriage, including his own.

The Delaware bill passed the House on April 23 by a vote of 23 to 18. And Equality Delaware organized its supporters to attend Tuesday’s vote and to wear red for visibility.

The Delaware bill calls for enactment to begin July 1, a month before a bill signed by the Rhode Island governor last week goes into effect.

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