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Out for equality | Gay lawmakers make politics personal in marriage fight

Minnesota state Rep. Karen Clark, the longest-serving openly gay lawmaker in U.S. history, turned her back on her governor when he called for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in his 2006 state of the state address.

At the time, it seemed to Clark and other LGBT lawmakers that many colleagues, and a majority of Americans, had turned their backs on equality. A wave of anti-gay amendments had been enacted across the country and there was still support for a federal anti-gay marriage in George W. Bush’s White House.

So much has changed since 2006, including the person in the Minnesota governor’s office and the person in the White House.

In May 2013, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed marriage equality bills into law. In Illinois, failure to pass a bill in the House in May left Gov. Pat Quinn still waiting – but he’s ready.

Gay lawmakers played key roles in advancing the equality bills in each state legislature. 

In Delaware, with an extremely close vote predicted in the Senate, Karen Peterson, D-Wilmington, publicly came out in a floor speech. During the debate, she told other senators, “If my happiness somehow demeans or diminishes your marriage, you need to work on your marriage.”

In Rhode Island and Minnesota, gay lawmakers helped shepherd the bills through committee to floor votes.

Rhode Island’s gay caucus includes House Speaker Gordon Fox, Reps. Frank Ferri and Deb Ruggiero and Sen. Donna Nesselbush, who in her floor speech said, “Of all the bills I will ever sponsor, this will be the bill that will have most impact on my life.”

In Minnesota, Clark is joined by openly gay state Rep. Susan Allen and state Sen. D. Scott Dibble. Clark and Dibble were looking over Dayton’s shoulder when the governor signed the bill allowing for same-sex couples to begin marrying on Aug. 1. 

Dibble – who holds the seat once occupied by Allan Spear, who in 1974 became one of the first openly gay elected officials – married husband Richard Levya in 2008 in California, during the brief period when same-sex marriages were allowed in that state.

In his floor speech on the Minnesota bill, Dibble said, “Today we have the awesome, humbling power to make dreams come true. What do we dream as kids growing up? What do we all dream when we start our lives? We dream of a good life, a happy home, falling in love with someone, sharing that life and loving family. And marriage says family like nothing else.”

Clark has plans to marry Jacquelyn Zita, her partner of 24 years, perhaps on the farm they own north of Minneapolis.

“Because all of that happened, we made history,” said Clark. “We wrote a new page in the history books, and in less than two years we became the first state to pivot from defeating a hurtful constitutional amendment to passing freedom to marry legislation.”

She also said, “In Minnesota, we don’t turn our back on family” and “Freedom means freedom for everyone.”

The openly gay lawmakers stood for themselves, their partners, their families and others seeking the freedom to marry the person they love, said Chuck Wolfe, president of the Victory Fund, which helps recruit, train and fund LGBT candidates for public office.

“They spoke passionately and authentically about the personal impact of this struggle, and that has made a tremendous difference,” Wolfe said.

Openly gay lawmakers also were crucial to successful campaigns for marriage equality in Maryland and Washington in 2012 and New York in 2011.

Later this year, the Illinois House is expected to vote on marriage equality. The success of the bill, in large part, rests with its openly gay sponsor, Rep. Greg Harris, who is working with openly gay Reps. Kelly Cassidy, Deb Mell and Sam Yingling.

Also, efforts are intensifying to drive marriage equality measures in Oregon, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, New Jersey, Hawaii and New Mexico. There are out state lawmakers in each of those states to lead the campaigns. In Colorado, there are six out state representatives and two out state senators. And in Nevada, there are three out senators and two out representatives.

“We’re working to make sure every single state legislature in America has the benefit of at least one openly LGBT lawmaker who can speak for our community,” Wolfe has said. 

Meanwhile, campaigns are organizing in Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island to provide lawmakers who stood for marriage equality some protection at the polls.

Right-wing groups such as the National Organization for Marriage have pledged to fund campaigns to oust pro-equality lawmakers. “This is not the end of the debate,” NOM president Brian Brown said after Delaware legalized same-sex marriage. “We intend to make sure that every citizen in Delaware knows how their policymakers voted on this critical issue. ”

Brown made similar statements after the passage of marriage equality in Rhode Island and Minnesota. “Make no mistake, this vote will bring the demise of the DFL majority,” Brown threatened, referring to Minnesota Democrats.

On June 6, the first day that same-sex couples could apply for marriage licenses in Minnesota, Clark encouraged citizens to pledge support for state representatives and senators who didn’t turn their backs on equality.

“We would not have secured marriage for same-sex couples in Minnesota without Republicans and DFLers working together, or without Minnesotans of all faiths coming together with one united mission,” she said. “The next step is to defend all those leaders in the state Legislature, both Republicans and DFLers, who stood up for freedom, fairness and all Minnesota families.”

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UPDATED: Delaware becomes 11th marriage equality state

UPDATED: The “First State” has become the 11th state to legalize same-sex marriage.

The Delaware Senate on May 7 voted 12-9 to allow same-sex couples to enter civil marriages in the state. The measure had already passed the House of Representatives with a 23-18 vote.

The next step was for Democratic Gov. Jack Markell to sign the measure. He did that soon after the Senate vote.

“Time and again over the past few weeks, lawmakers have affirmed the views of Delawareans in recognizing that the time for marriage equality is upon us,” said Lisa Goodman, Equality Delaware president.

“It’s a spectacular day,” said Mark Solomon of Freedom to Marry. “This win in Delaware builds on the amazing momentum we have experienced this year nationwide.”

The bill reached the floor of the Democratic-controlled Senate after a committee hearing, where those who testified for the bill included parents, veterans as faith leaders, as well as representatives from the NAACP and the DuPont Company.

The Senate debate began shortly after 2 p.m. EST on May 7, lawmakers focused on how civil unions would be replaced by marriages and the impact of the legislation on religious institutions and people who object to gay marriage citing their faith. Senators were clearly divided over whether protections in the bill for religious freedoms, as well as free speech, go far enough.

Goodman, who testified on the bill before the Senate, emphasized that no clergy will be required to marry a same-sex couple, that no religious institution will be required to host a same-sex wedding or recognize a same-sex marriage.

But under existing law, she said, businesses cannot discriminate against people in Delaware, including based on sexual orientation.

“We’ve made a decision as Delawareans – this body made that decision – that we’ll treat people equally under the law,” Goodman said.

She also testified that two years ago, when LGBT civil rights leaders were seeking civil unions protections, no one predicted the sweeping support for marriage equality that materialized in the last year.

State Sen. Karen Peterson, in urging support for the measure, came out as a lesbian during the debate. She told her colleagues, “If my happiness somehow demeans or diminishes your marriage, you need to work on your marriage.”

After more about three hours discussing the bill, the Senate voted 12-9.

The governor soon after signed the measure, clearing the way for gay couples to begin marrying on July 1. He said, “I do not intend to make any of you wait one minute longer.”

“Today marks a historic day for Delawareans who have shown their support and commitment to fairness and equality,” said Kathleen McRae, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware. “We are proud to have worked with so many dedicated partners to reach this moment.”

Last week, Rhode Island became the 10th state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.

Also this spring, lawmakers in Minnesota and Illinois could pass marriage equality bills.

A measure supported by the governor has passed the Illinois Senate and is awaiting a floor vote in the Illinois House.

A marriage bill in Minnesota is due for a floor vote in the House on May 9.

“We are living in times of historic change,” said Jane Wishon, a Marriage Equality USA board member. “Right after Rhode Island became the 10th marriage equality state, Delaware has become the 11th – the entire nation is now watching to see just how quickly Illinois, Minnesota, or one of the many other states moving forward will become number 12.”

Meanwhile, in late June the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on two major marriage equality cases.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group, said, “As America waits for rulings from the Supreme Court on two historic marriage cases, Delaware today took decisive action and guaranteed equality for the thousands of gay and lesbian couples of that great state. Thanks to principled impatience from state leaders in Dover, the momentum for LGBT equality continues unabated.”

Gay marriage bill headed to Delaware Senate May 7

A state Senate committee has sent a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Delaware to the full Senate for a vote this week, probably Tuesday.

The measure, supported by Democratic Gov. Jack Markell, cleared the Senate executive committee after a 90-minute hearing.

The bill narrowly won passage in the House recently and supporters and opponents expect another close vote in the Senate when it takes up the measure.

If the bills wins Senate passage and is signed by Markell, Delaware would become the 11th state to authorize same-sex marriage.

A bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Rhode Island was signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee on May 2.

Delaware’s same-sex marriage bill was introduced in the Democrat-controlled legislature last month, barely a year after Delaware began recognizing same-sex civil unions.

While the bill would not give same-sex couples any more state rights or benefits under Delaware law than those already available to those in civil unions, supporters say same-sex couples deserve the same dignity and respect as married couples.

They also note that if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars legally married gay couples from receiving federal benefits, civil unions would not provide any protections or tax benefits under federal law to same-sex couples in Delaware. 

“What matters is that government treats us all as equals under the law,” said Jon Rania, a lay ministry associate and music director at Christ Episcopal Church in Dover who married his partner in Massachusetts.

Opponents, including some 50 clerics from churches throughout Delaware who rallied outside Legislative Hall before this week’s committee hearing, argue that same-sex marriage redefines and destroys a centuries-old institution that is a fundamental building block of society.

Under the bill, no new civil unions would be performed in Delaware after July 1, and existing civil unions would be converted to marriages over the next year.

Supporters say the bill protects religious freedoms and the freedom of speech of those opposed to same-sex marriage.

The bill does not force clerics to perform same-sex marriages that conflict with their religious beliefs, but opponents note that under an existing Delaware law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, business owners who refuse to provide marriage-related services to same-sex couples for reasons of conscience could be subject to discrimination claims.

Delaware governor signs civil union bill into law

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (pictured) signed landmark legislation on May 11 creating civil unions for same-sex couples in his state. Couples who enter into legal relationships will enjoy the same rights, protections and obligations that exist for married heterosexual spouses, including hospital visitation rights, property and last will and testament transfers, the ability to live together in nursing homes and joint adoption rights.

The new law also orders Delaware to recognize legal relationships that same-sex couples enter into in another jurisdiction – whether civil unions or marriages – and treat the relationship as a civil union.

“This bill is about a new energy and excitement,” Markell said. “The greater good is served when we speak out and fight hard when we see that bias, prejudice or even outdated laws attempt to lessen any one of us.

“Tonight, we say to children of gay and lesbian parents in committed relationships – and there are so many wonderful kids growing up in those families all over our state – that 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.”

Rep. Melanie L. George, lead sponsor of the civil union legislation in the state house, noted that women and African-Americans fought for years to address inequalities in society, such as the right to vote and end segregation. She said that she believes “with every fiber of my being that this is the right thing to do.”

Equality Delaware released a poll prior to the final vote showing 62 percent of likely Delaware voters support civil unions for same-sex couples, twice the number that oppose civil unions. Poll results showed that more people in all three counties and nearly every demographic – men, women, seniors, residents ages 50 to 64 and younger than 50 – favor civil unions.

“Much of the resistance to this is couched in fear, but the more time we spend with people and the more you learn about them, the less threatened we feel by other people. The folks celebrating tonight include friends I’ve skied with, folks I’ve ridden a bike with and folks who’ve worked with me,” said Sen. David Sokola, the lead sponsor of the bill in the senate. “I see this celebration as a reaffirmation of our commitment to basic fairness to all Delawareans.”

Delaware approves civil unions law

A bill to make Delaware the eighth state to allow civil unions or domestic partnerships for same-sex couples has cleared the legislature and Gov. Jack Markell said he looks forward to signing the measure into law.

House members debated for about three hours and rejected nine amendments before approving the bill last week on a 26-to-15 vote, prompting supporters in the balcony to erupt in cheers and applause. The senate approved the bill earlier in the month.

Opponents warned that the bill carries unintended consequences that will result in confusion in family law courts and likely will lead to lawsuits over religious liberties for those opposed to same-sex unions.

“Mark my words, there will be litigation over this,” said Douglas Napier, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative religious rights organization.

With Markell’s signature, the bill would take effect Jan. 1. The legislation gives gay couples the same rights and obligations of those who are married. But it makes clear that marriage is between a man and a woman. Five other states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage.

“I think it’s time for this bill to be passed, and it’s going to be good for so many Delawareans for years to come,” said Markell, a Democrat. “I’m really pleased with it.”

Supporters said the measure provides equal rights for homosexuals in committed relationships.

“We were all created with special, unique, beautiful differences,” said chief house sponsor Rep. Melanie George, D-Bear. “Our government respects those differences.”

Others argue it is a prelude to establishing gay marriage in the small state of about 885,000 people.

“Don’t be deceived. This bill is a precursor to same-sex marriage,” Napier said.

Lawmakers voted mostly along party lines April 14, with Democrats in favor and Republicans voting for amendments opposed by the bill’s proponents.

Eight of the nine amendments were offered by GOP lawmakers, including two similar to those that were rejected in the Senate. One would have authorized civil unions for opposite-sex couple but not those of the same sex. The other would have required that Delaware voters approve civil unions in a statewide referendum before they could take effect.

From AP and WiG reports