When the landmark vote was announced, Fay Jacobs jumped up and cheered, and then the 62-year-old from Rehoboth Beach, who has been in a committed same-sex relationship for 29 years, started to cry.
“I’m feeling overwhelmed,” Jacobs said. “This is life-changing for people. It’s protection, it’s legitimacy of our relationships and it is equality.”
Jacobs and dozens of other supporters of same-sex civil unions roared with delight Thursday night in the balcony of the Legislative Hall House chamber as House members voted 26-15 to fully recognize same-sex relationships.
The bill now goes to Gov. Jack Markell who says he will sign it into law, making Delaware the seventh state to allow same-sex civil unions.
“When it came to this legislation, it was clear that it was about rights, it was about opportunity and it was about time,” he said.
Under the measure, civil unions would be available only to same-sex couples, while marriage would remain limited by Delaware law only to opposite-sex couples. Couples who enter into a civil union would enjoy the same rights, protections and obligations that exist for married spouses, such as hospital visitation rights, property and last will and testament transfers, the ability to live together in nursing homes, joint adoption, and other legal issues.
At the start of more than two hours of debate, Rep. Melanie George (D-Bear/Newark), the bill’s lead sponsor in the House, asked her fellow lawmakers to “create history.”
Afterwards, she called it a victory for all Delawareans.
“When some people are denied justice, everybody in Delaware is denied justice,” she said. “So, by restoring that equality and justice to all couples who are in a loving and committed relationship all of Delaware can celebrate.”
Not everyone is celebrating.
Opponents in the House attempted to alter the bill with nine amendments. The amendments, which included giving the same civil union rights to non-married, heterosexual couples, and requiring a statewide referendum to determine if the law becomes effective, were all defeated.
Some legislators argued the state and its taxpayers simply could not afford the price tag of such a law, which according to some estimates would cost as much as $3 million.
George does not deny that civil rights cost money.
“Fifty years ago when we integrated schools, that cost money to build bigger schools, but we paid it because the principle was too important,” she said. “And that’s what we said today, the principle of equality and fairness and justice for everyone is the most important thing and we’re willing to fund it.”
Douglas Napier, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative religious rights organization, told the chamber the bill is riddled with all sorts of unintended consequences and is a precursor to same-sex marriage.
“For the first time in the history of this state you have created a new civil right,” he said. “But you have done it at the expense of the long-standing institution of marriage, I think you’ve done it at the expense of children who deserve a Mom and a Dad, and you’ve done it at the expense of the taxpayers who have no clue what they’re buying.”
Lisa Goodman, a Wilmington attorney and president of Equality Delaware, accused Napier and other “out-of-towners” of trying to scare people with the term “same-sex marriage.”
“This is a matter of basic fairness,” she said. “It’s a civil union bill, that’s what it is. It provides the same benefits and obligations as marriage. It does not change the definition of marriage.”