A Civil (Union) start to the New Year in Delaware

New Castle County Clerk of Peace Ken Boulden jokingly said if he knew how to read a calendar better Delaware’s new Civil Union law would probably have started Tuesday.

Boulden and four other members of his staff volunteered to kick off the new law when it became official at 10am.

“I felt an obligation to be here,” he said. Boulden’s sense of duty came when the bill was first written. “They wanted to make the effective date July 1. I told them that was impossible,” he said. “They asked when I could make it happen and I said January 1. I wasn’t thinking about the holiday.”

No matter. Boulden spent those 6 months getting ready for today when same sex couples could apply for a license and officially be recognized as a legal couple under Delaware law.

First up were two people who were instrumental in getting the law passed. Lisa Goodman and her partner Drew Fennell have been working on laws to protect gays and lesbians for almost a dozen years. Fennell as the former head of the ACLU worked to get Delaware’s anti-discrimination laws passed in 2009. Goodman, as head of Equality Delaware knew 2011 was the perfect time to pass a Civil Union law.

“It was a magical moment,” Goodman said talking about the timing of the law’s passage. “The democrats had taken over the state house and the people we had worked with for years were now in charge.”

The range of emotions

Mack Gardner and Michael Clement of Wilmington first talked about Civil Union ceremony in 2009 when they were in front of the White House. “We thought about having it in Washington, DC because we didn’t think this day would ever come,” said Clement. They are on the board of Equality Delaware and thought this moment was important enough not to wait until residents can officially start the license waiting period. Many will sign up on Tuesday and can legally have a ceremony on Thursday. Gardner and Clement will have theirs Sunday afternoon at the Delaware Art Museum.

Everyone professed to be nervous about the day. Helen Abrams and Carol Wells of Rehoboth were both nervous and slightly upset about the road that got them to New Castle County. “We decided to come here because we were annoyed at some of the things the Sussex County Clerk of the Peace (George Parrish) said about the process when the bill was being debated,” Wells said. “We originally come from Newark. We have friends who are also going through a ceremony. So, we decided it was more important to be with them,” The two couples were planning a private ceremony at their friend’s home.

Websites for both Sussex and Kent County say their offices are closed on Sunday and Monday, but are ready on Tuesday for anyone wanting to register for a Civil Union license. New Castle County’s office will also be closed Monday.

Clement described the law as a good first step. He said that federal recognition is essential for the law to be effective. Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware) echoed those sentiments. Goodman’s mother, Patricia, was one of the family members who had waited 14 years for this moment. “I’ve watched the struggles they’ve gone through to get here,” she said. “It’s exciting to see other couples here too.”

Give the clerk 20 minutes and you get a license

Boulden greeted all arriving couples with the same speech. He said it would take about 20 minutes to fill out the necessary paperwork. He praised a north east Pennsylvania software company for coming up with a program that he said would become the national standard for processing civil union licenses. The fee is $50, but the company, Genesis, offered anyone who wanted it a gift card for that amount to help pay the fee. The questions were basic ones dealing with name, address, etc. Fennell drew a nervous laugh from Goodman when she couldn’t remember her father’s first name. For each couple the computer document was scanned on to an official form, and after it was notarized the couple could then head in for their ceremony.

Standing room only for the first ceremony

Goodman and Fennell chose their regular church, Trinity Episcopal in Wilmington as the spot for Delaware’s first commitment ceremony. Senator Chris Coons, Lt. Governor Matt Denn and New Castle County Executive Paul Clark were among those in attendance for the event. At the stroke of noon, the packed church watched a line of celebrants, the couple and their families as part of a procession that walked up the aisle and on to the altar.

The couple decided to go with the ceremony regularly performed at an Episcopal service. There were smiles and some laughter when the couple was asked by Reverend Patricia Downing if anyone “objected to this civil union” or “would they be faithful to (each other) as long as you both shall live”.

Coons called the day historic. He said more work needed to be done so that, “not just this state, but all states, and not just this country, but all countries can build on this.”

From there it was just like any other church ceremony for any other couple. Rings were exchanged, applause was given as the couple was introduced, and beaming family members were happy to be there as witnesses. But as the congregation sang the final him “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee”, members of Trinity Episcopal knew they had witnessed something out of the ordinary.

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