REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — More than 150 people gathered in this beach town on a windy Saturday to hear about the effort to introduce a civil unions bill in the Delaware Legislature.
Equality Delaware, chaired by Wilmington attorney Lisa Goodman, is behind the effort and has already drafted the bill and found sponsors to introduce it. Steve Elkins, executive director of CAMP Rehoboth, the area’s LGBT community center, welcomed attendees and then turned the meeting over to Equality Delaware.
Goodman, along with others from Equality Delaware, answered questions and listened to comments from those in attendance. It was announced that the sponsors of the bill will be state Rep. Melanie George (D-Bear) and state Sen. David Sokola (D-Newark).
Lawmakers plan to introduce the measure next month. It is anticipated that if the bill passes that civil unions in Delaware would be available only to gay and lesbian couples. Full marriage rights would remain limited to opposite-sex couples.
Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, the House Majority Leader, whose district includes Rehoboth Beach, attended the meeting. Schwartzkopf is a longtime supporter of the LGBT community and has played a key role in moving LGBT legislation in the past. He said he believes that this legislation can pass the Senate and that if it does it will sail through the House. He urged the audience to contact their lawmakers and to get their friends and allies to do so as well.
The bill will address the Delaware Defense of Marriage Act law and, in essence, repeal the current criminal penalties under Delaware law that prohibit Delawareans from marrying a same-sex spouse in another jurisdiction and would recognize such marriages as civil unions in Delaware. Current law in Delaware provides for a $100 fine and up to 30 days imprisonment for holding oneself out as a married same-sex couple.
Rehoboth Beach is in Sussex County — the only county that voted for Christine O’Donnell for Senate in the last election. It was reported at the meeting that O’Donnell has come out in support of civil unions, but that could not be immediately confirmed.
In response to a question, organizers said Equality Delaware made the decision to move forward with civil unions rather than marriage equality at this time because they strongly believe that the bill can pass the legislature.
Under the bill, couples in a civil union would be accorded all the rights of marriage in Delaware unless prohibited by federal law. Civil unions would be performed and resolved in the same manner as marriages. Religious institutions and members of the clergy would not be required to perform civil unions. However, Clerks of the Peace (state officials who perform civil marriage ceremonies) would be required to perform civil union ceremonies if asked. Organizers estimated that about 700 couples in Delaware would quickly take advantage of a civil union option if passed.