April 17, 2013 at 4:37 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
BREAKING: Del. same-sex marriage bill advances

Melanie George Smith, Equality Delaware, Delaware, gay news, Washington Blade, gay marriage, same sex marriage, marriage equality, HB 75, marriage equality

Delaware state Rep. Melanie George Smith (D-Bear) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

DOVER, Del.—A Delaware House committee on Wednesday voted 4-1 to advance a bill that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The House Administration Committee approved House Bill 75 after 38 people testified for and against the proposal during a hearing that lasted more than 90 minutes.

House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst (D-Bear) voted to allow HB 75 out of committee along with state Reps. Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) and Deborah Hudson (R-Faircloth.) Seaford Republican Dan Short voted against it.

“House Bill 75 extends the freedom to marry to all Delawareans who are in a loving, committed relationship,” state Rep. Melanie George Smith (D-Bear,) who introduced HB 75 last Thursday, said at the beginning of the hearing. “This legislation will respect and recognize with equal dignity all couples who are in a loving, committed relationship.”

She, along with Equality Delaware President Lisa Goodman and Equality Delaware Foundation President Mark Purpura stressed the measure will also protect religious freedom.

“This bill makes it explicitly clear no minister will ever be required to marry a same-sex couple,” Goodman said.

Rehoboth Beach resident Fay Jacobs, who has been with her partner for 35 years, urged the committee to “end our long run as second class citizens.” Richard Smith, president of the Delaware State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP,) described nuptials for gays and lesbians as a “civil right.”

“It’s an affirmative right for people to be together,” he said.

The committee’s vote took place nearly two years after Gov. Jack Markell signed a bill that would allow gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions.

The law took effect in Jan. 2012, but same-sex marriage opponents have repeatedly accused Equality Delaware and other groups that support HB 75 of lying about their intentions to seek nuptials for gays and lesbians in the state once they were able to enter into civil unions.

“We sat in this chamber just less than two years ago debating the civil unions issue,” Nicole Thise of the Delaware Family Policy Council said during her testimony. “The civil unions legislation is the most comprehensive legislation in the country. It literally mirrors the marriage law of Delaware, extending all state benefits to couples of the same-sex.”

Rick Hensley, a pastor at Grace and Truth Community Church in Felton, testified against the civil unions bill in 2011. He reiterated his opposition to extending marriage to gays and lesbian couples as he spoke against HB 75.

“The bill at hand is another example of the assault on the foundation of our society, which is the family,” Hensley said.

Rev. Jeffrey Ross of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes noted his congregation began blessing same-sex unions before the state’s civil unions law took effect. He told committee members that we “cannot allow prejudice to prosper in our First State.”

“As a priest in the Christian church I need to support members who want to live faithfully within the covenant of marriage, even if they happen to be gay or lesbian,” Ross said. “I need you to give them that legal standing.”

Neighboring Maryland is among the nine states and D.C. in which same-sex couples can legally marry.

A Global Strategy Group poll that Equality Delaware commissioned in February shows 54 percent of Delawareans back nuptials for gays and lesbians. A survey that ABC News and the Washington Post released last month indicates 58 percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage.

Smith welcomed the committee’s vote during a brief interview with the Blade inside the House chamber.

“We’re very excited that the bill was voted out of committee,” she said. “We look forward to in the very near future having an opportunity to have a full debate on this on the House floor and passing it out of the House of Representatives.”

The full House could potentially vote on HB 75 as early as Tuesday.

Smith said she remains confident the measure will have enough votes to pass in the chamber.

“I’m confident that we have a majority of Delaware representatives — so over 21 of the 41 — [who] will do the right thing and vote to support equality in Delaware,” she said.

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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