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New Year brings same-sex civil unions in Delaware

DOVER, Del. — The dawning of the new year in Delaware brings with it a new law allowing same-sex couples to enter into legally recognized civil unions.

The new law takes effect at 10 a.m. Sunday. That means most same-sex couples will have to wait until government offices reopen Tuesday after the long holiday weekend before applying for a license.

But a few lucky couples will be able to welcome the New Year by solemnizing their civil unions that same day. New Castle County Clerk of the Peace Ken Boulden Jr. has agreed to open his office on New Year’s Day to accommodate about eight couples who have made appointments and face special circumstances. He also will waive a 24-hour waiting time between obtaining a license and participating in a civil union ceremony. But he won’t perform civil union ceremonies in his office until Jan. 5.

The first couple who will be joined in a civil union in Delaware are Lisa Goodman, a lawyer who led the advocacy group Equality Delaware’s fight for the civil union legislation, and her partner of 14 years, Drewry Fennell, head of the state Criminal Justice Council and former director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Goodman said that after obtaining the license from Boulden, she and Fennell will go directly to Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Wilmington to solemnize their civil union at the regular noon worship service.

“We’ll have lots of family in for the day,” said Goodman, adding that being the first couple to enter into a civil union in Delaware is “a tremendous honor.”

The law authorizing civil unions was signed by Gov. Jack Markell in May before a cheering crowd of supporters in downtown Wilmington, making Delaware one of about a dozen states that allow either civil unions or marriages for same-sex couples.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Delaware ranks among the top 10 states in the percentage of households with reported same-sex couples.

Passage of the law came two years after the General Assembly outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation, capping a decade-long effort.

Critics of the civil union law fear it is a precursor to same-sex marriage in Delaware, especially if Congress overturns the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Opponents also have said the new law carries unintended consequences that will result in confusion in family courts and likely will lead to lawsuits over religious liberties for those opposed to same-sex unions. Critics also believe the financial impact on businesses and the state, which will face added costs for health care benefits for partners of state employees, has been underestimated.

Markell said passage of the civil union legislation was the right thing to do.

“The start of civil unions says to loving and committed couples across the state who want the law to endorse the promise they made long ago in their hearts — your love is equally valid and deserving, your family is now equal under the law,” Markell said in a statement issued by his spokesman. “It even says to businesses looking for a place to locate that Delaware takes rights seriously and that their employees will find in our state a place that respects their rights.”

Markell spokesman Brian Selander noted that before passage of the anti-discrimination bill in 2009, it was legal for an employer to fire someone for being gay.

Former state Rep. William Oberle Jr., who plans to attend Sunday’s ceremony for Goodman and Fennell, said passage of the civil union law was the result of a “natural progression” following enactment of the anti-discrimination legislation he had championed for more than a decade.

“I think it was a threshold moment, but I think the educational process that led us to its passage made it somewhat easier to address issues like civil unions,” said Oberle, adding that he doesn’t think control of the House passing from Republicans to Democrats in the 2008 election played a role in getting the civil union legislation passed.

But Norman Spector, a New Castle County government worker looking forward to a Jan. 5 civil union ceremony with his partner of 23 years, disagreed. He noted that only two of 15 House Republicans voted for the civil union bill.

Spector, 61, said the civil union with his partner, George Everett, will allow them to make medical decisions for each other, something they have not been allowed to do under current law.

“It solidifies our life together,” he said. “It just means a lot to us.”

Despite the long wait, Spector doesn’t expect a mad dash to clerks of the peace on Tuesday by same-sex couples eager to enter into civil unions.

“The gay community is taking this very seriously,” he said. “… It also comes with the obligations of marriage. It’s not so easy to get out of it.”

As far as same-sex marriage itself, Spector said that could be a logical next step if the Defense of Marriage Act is repealed.

“I think this is a step in the right direction, by allowing people to see that this civil unions issue is not going to demoralize, uncivilize the human race,” he said. “God is not going to come and strike everybody down.”