Markell signs Delaware civil unions bill into law
Starting Jan. 1, it will provide legal protections, benefitsby Beth Miller, News Journal
With the Rainbow Chorale of Delaware providing the grace notes and fluted glasses of champagne on hand for a long-awaited party, Gov. Jack Markell signed Delaware's civil unions bill into law before a jammed and cheering house at the Queen Theatre Wednesday evening.
"Tonight, we say to loving and committed couples across the state who want the law to endorse the promise that they made long ago in their hearts, 'Your love is equally valid and deserving, your family is now equal under the law,' " Markell told the crowd.
Effective Jan. 1, t he law will provide legal protections and benefits for same-sex couples who solemnize their relationships. With the signing, Delaware becomes the eighth state to grant comprehensive same-sex relationship rights -- either through same-sex marriage laws, civil unions or domestic partnerships. The law does not change federal law, which restricts marriage benefits to opposite-sex couples.
After decades of struggle with the gay rights debate, the civil unions bill seemed to fly through the Legislature, moving from its filing date to final passage on April 14 in less than four weeks.
Lawmakers passed t he bill in both chambers by margins of almost 2-to-1, with several expressing the difficulty with which they cast their votes for and against. Scores of people testified -- some warning of dire consequences if Delaware endorsed same-sex relationships, others urging lawmakers to respect the rights of all and recognize the relationships of the state's same-sex couples as valuable and worthy of legal protection.
Lisa Goodman, president of Equality Delaware, took pains to name the lawmakers who voted for the bill and many other supporters. She saluted primary sponsors Sen. David Sokola and Rep. Melanie George. And after Markell signed the bill, she led the champagne toast.
"We're saying thank you one more time," she said. "Because as we tell our children, you can never say it enough. We will have the same protections, obligations and benefits that all other couples in Delaware are able to enjoy. As the governor said, we believe the tide is turning in the country, and we know it has turned in Delaware."
About 600 people were expected at the event, organized by Equality Delaware, which drafted the bill, and it appeared that they all showed up.
Fay Jacobs, a columnist for the newsletter of CAMP Rehoboth, a gay and lesbi an community center in Rehoboth Beach, wished she could see one face in the crowd -- that of gay rights pioneer Barbara Gittings of Wilmington, who died in 2007.
"In 1965, she was picketing the White House for gay rights," Jacobs said. "And no matter where she went in the country -- she was from Wilmington. Just before she died, she did a Stonewall Democrats event in Rehoboth and said, 'I hope I will be here to see what happens in Delaware.'"
Others in the crowd had long perspectives on the struggle, too.
Wilmington attorney David Facciolo and Jane Monahan, an attorney now living in Geneva, Switzerland, fought against Delaware's version of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, but that law passed and remains in effect, which was one reason Equality Delaware sought a civil unions bill for same-sex couples only.
"We felt that was the beginning of hate coming out," Facciolo said, "but it was also the beginning of opportunity to enlighten people."
"Fifteen years ago, I was thinking life is not fair," Monahan said. "Things will never change. ... I can't believe i t."
Facciolo said he worked with the civil rights attorney Louis L. Redding for the last three years of his career and thought of him Wednesday night.
"Sometimes, I feel that when something this good happens, maybe a little bit of him is with us," he said.
Facciolo said he and his partner of 20 years plan to form a civil union.
Dale Wyatt said the event was a great way to celebrate his 25th birthday. Though his history is a bit shorter, he and his partner have been together for six years.
"This is a life-changing event," Wyatt said. "And it's about time. ... We are just as stable as straight couples -- if not more so."
The Rev. Karla Fleshman, a member of the Equality Delaware board, said she has lived in Delaware for three years. The work of the past year included "creative conflict," she said.
"Because we did the work of building relationships, when the rubber hit the road, we were united," she said. "To be around veterans of justice in Delaware -- it's a humble honor."
Bob Martz, president of the Delaware Liberty Fund, said the law is the most historic Markell will sign.
"For Delaware -- it's incredible," he said.
Drewry Fennell, Goodman's partner and former executive di rector of the Delaware chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she couldn't put her finger on any single tipping point.
"If you felt the energy in this room tonight, you felt the tipping point," she said.
Goodman called members of the Equality Delaware board of directors and foundation to the stage -- with their children -- before Markell signed the bill.
About a dozen kids sat in front of him as he took pen in hand.
"Tonight, we say to children of gay and lesbian parents in committed relationships all over our state -- and there are so many wonderful kids, including many here tonight, growing up in those families all over our state -- we say to you: It doesn't matter if your parents are gay or straight. The people you love and look up to and that are dedicating their lives and love to raising you -- those are your parents.
"You are a family. And while we've known it, and you've known it for years, tonight, that equality becomes real under law," he said.
The Rainbow Chorale sang "Make Them Hear You" from "Ragtime," and "We Are One Family."
Video messages were presented, too, from U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, U.S. Rep. John Carney and Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker.