A bill that grants marriage equality to same-sex couples is scheduled for a vote by Delaware’s House of Representatives, where Democrats hold the majority.
House Bill 75 was released from the House Administration Committee in a vote of 3-1 April 17. Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, voted against releasing the bill to the House floor.
Two members of the committee who voted to release the bill – House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, and House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear – are sponsors of the measure.
The bill’s head sponsor, Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear/Newark, said it would grant equal rights and dignity to all couples and allow religious leaders the freedom to choose whether to perform same-sex ceremonies.
Equality Delaware Board member Mark Purpura, who helped craft the legislation, said if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the federal Defense of Marriage Act, there would be no federal protections or rights for couples who have entered into a civil union.
According to HB 75, all civil unions in Delaware would become legal marriages within a year of bill’s passage. Same-sex couples that have been married in other states would also be recognized in Delaware if the bill passes.
Lynn Ekelund and Mary Hudson were the first same-sex couple in Sussex County to have a civil union in January 2012. “It was a wonderful day for us,” Ekelund said.
She said she believes the Supreme Court will overturn DOMA, and she and Hudson will be left with no federal protections offered to married couples.
“We want to get married just like anybody else,” Ekelund said.
About 40 citizens testified at the committee hearing of HB 75, and supporters of the bill slightly outnumbered those who testified against it.
Roberta Price, a Gulf War veteran, stood beside her partner, Colleen Collins, and testified that spouses of gay military members get no benefits and are not even notified if their partner is killed in the line of duty. “Let us treat our military gay members equally,” Price said.
Charlotte King, of Delaware League of Women Voters, said the league supports the bill and she personally has been with her partner for 35 years. King said past laws denied black slaves the right to marry; later, interracial marriages were illegal. HB 75 would correct a similar societal injustice, King said.
A DuPont representative said the company supports marriage equality, and Delaware employers are at a disadvantage because they cannot offer the same benefits to all employees. “It will make our state and our economy stronger,” he said of the bill.
Richard Smith, who testified on behalf of the Wilmington NAACP, said the association would fight for marriage equality. “HB 75 is a civil right.” Smith said. “We support people being together that are in love.”
Micah Becker-Klein, rabbi at Temple Beth El in Newark, said Judaism teaches its followers to love others as they love themselves. “God would want people to be with people they love,” he said.
Other religious leaders spoke against the measure.
Grace and Truth Community Church Pastors Rick Hensley and Billy Rosano both testified against the bill. Hensely called HB 75 an assault on families. He said over the last few decades, homosexuality has gone from an immoral act to one that is accepted and normal. “Evil has been called good, and good has been called evil,” he said.
Hensley said homosexuality is a strong desire that can be changed.
Rosano said he was sympathetic to the cause, but civil unions are adequate.
Greenwood resident Jordan Warfel said the bill chips away at churches’ First Amendment rights. “Only the most narrow protections are afforded to church and clergy,” he said. “This bill is setting us up on a collision course we don’t fully understand yet.”
Nicole Theis, of Delaware Family Policy Council, said when Delaware legalized same-sex civil unions less than two years ago, it gave gay couples the same rights as straight married couples. “That’s why legislators passed that,” she said.
Theis said allowing same-sex marriage would negatively affect the state’s religious liberties and education system. “It will not stop at marriage,” she said.
HB 75 now heads to the House floor for a vote. To read the bill, go to delaware.gov.