Delaware is now the 11th state in the country to approve same-sex marriages.
State Senators approved a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in a 12-9 vote on Tuesday. The gallery exploded into cheers with onlookers hugging each other after the Senate passed the measure.
Senators Robert Marshall (D-Wilmington West), Catherine Cloutier (R-Heatherbrooke) and Bethany Hall-Long (D-Middletown) were the swing votes in the matter, as it was unclear which side they would fall on.
Hall-Long posted an explanation of her vote on her Facebook page.
“My vote is guided by my belief in fundamental fairness for all Delawareans. As a Christian, I deeply respect our nation’s strong tradition of religious freedom and feel strongly about the separation of church and state. HB 75 makes clear that no religious institution will be required to perform any marriage, same-sex or opposite-sex, if it doesn’t conform to their beliefs,” wrote Hall-Long. “However, I also believe it is unfair for same-sex couples to be denied the same federal benefits as their married friends and neighbors.”
The tally wasn’t as close as some had expected.
Lisa Goodman heads the LGBT rights group Equality Delaware. She says a few undecided lawmakers made up their minds very recently.
“I think as we got closer to the floor vote we got more confident that the people we were in conversation wanted to do the right thing and that they would be there for the vote when the vote was taken and I’m so happy to say they were,” Goodman explained.
Lawmakers debated the legislation for three hours, with passionate arguments made by both sides.
Senator Karen Peterson (D-Stanton) spoke about being with her partner for 24 years and said her relationship shouldn’t be viewed as second-class.
“We, like all other Americans, should have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Peterson said. “And if my happiness somehow demeans or diminishes your marriage, then you need to work on your marriage.”
Lawmakers opposed to the measure say they are concerned that changing the definition of marriage will have unintended consequences.
Others questioned what benefits marriage would have over civil unions.
Sen. Robert Venables (D-Laurel) was one of the two Democrats who voted against the bill. He says he doesn’t blame the LGBT community for seeking to be included in society.
“But I don’t see why, for them to feel comfortable in their lifestyle and these other things that they want, that they would be willing to sacrifice, from the beginning of time or five thousand years ago, the sanctity of marriage,” he added.
House Bill 75 would not force churches or clergy to perform same sex marriage if it goes against their religious beliefs, something many lawmakers had concerns over.
Worries over the law infringing on Delawareans’ 1st Amendment rights also stood at the forefront.
Recent court battles involving business owners refusing service to same sex couples prompted questions from opponents.
However, the General Assembly updated Delaware’s anti-discrimination statute in 2009 to include sexual orientation, making those kinds of actions already illegal in the state.
Goodman says she’s overjoyed by the the Senate’s ultimate decision in favor of the bill.
“To have all of the votes that we hoped we would have today come together on the floor, to hear the wonderful things that the legislators had to say, to have the governor sign the bill all in one day, it’s just amazing,” she said.
Minutes after the vote, Governor Jack Markell (D) signed the bill into law on the grand staircase inside Legislative Hall.
“Today, we wrote a new chapter in our history and proved, once again, justice and equality continue to move forward in Delaware,” said Markell. “In my State of the State earlier this year, I spoke about a Delaware that protects the rights of all of its citizens, no matter whom they love. By signing House Bill 75 into law, we are another step closer towards achieving that goal.”
Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware), a vocal supporter of the bill, was among the public officials who hailed the bill’s approval following Tuesday’s vote.
“The passage of HB 75 ushers in a new era of equality in our state and marks an important moment in our state’s history. I am incredibly proud,” said Coons in statement. “The lawmakers who stood up for the freedom to marry for the first time today — some breaking with their party; others breaking with their previous politics — have my sincere thanks.”
The approval of same-sex marriage legislation comes a little more than two years after the General Assembly voted to create civil unions for same-sex couples.
The bill will go into effect July 1. Under the bill, no further civil unions will be granted after July 1. Those civil unions already in effect would be converted to marriage in 2014 those who had a civil union do not choose to obtain a marriage license by then.