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Gay Marriage: Delaware and Rhode Island Inch Closer to Marriage Equality

Delaware and Rhode Island both took steps on Tuesday to become the latest states to legalize same sex marriage — which, if signed into law, would make a total of eleven states and the District of Columbia.

The Delaware State House narrowly approved a measure to legalize same sex marriage in a 23-to-18 vote — coming a year after the state began to recognize civil unions. Five Democrats broke rank to oppose the measure; Rep. Michael Ramone of Newark was the only Republican to vote in favor.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Democratic Gov. Jack Markell, who has previously promised to sign the bill if it passes the Democrat-led legislature. 

The Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee, on the same day, voted 7-to-4 to approve a similar measure to allow gays and lesbians to marry (Rhode Island is the last New England state to do so). This follows a sweeping 51-to-19 vote on a similar bill in the State House. Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee — one time Republican turned Independent — has been a vocal supporter of marriage equality. 

The Committee had previously failed to support a counterproposal to allow the public to decide on the issue by way of referendum; of the 38-member State Senate, all five Republican members have declared support for marriage equality. A full vote could approach the Senate as next Wednesday.

Opponents to Delaware’s bill cite concerns over religious liberties — worried that business owners who refuse marriage-related services for gay and lesbian couples could be hit with discrimination charges. “If there’s an exemption for right of conscience,” said Jordan Lorence, attorney of the conservative religious liberties group Alliance Defending Freedom, “I don’t see it.”

Delaware Republican Rep. Tim Dukes cited a Gallup poll stating that of the 24,000 Delawareans who are gay or lesbian (3.4 percent of the total population), only 3.7% had filed for civil unions. “Delaware has the most extensive civil union law in the country,” Dukes said. “The truth is, it has not been taken advantage of.” 

Proponents argue that if the United States Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), those with state-sanctioned civil unions would be ineligible to tax benefits available to married opposite-sex couples.  

Rhode Island Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, meanwhile, urged Catholics to “defend marriage and family as traditionally defined” and “resist this immoral and unnecessary proposition.” 

Public support in both states favors equality. A 2013 poll commissioned by Equality Delaware found that 54% of voters in the state supported same sex marriage, with 37% opposed. A similar 2011 Pew Research poll conducted in Rhode Island found that 50% of the state was in favor of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, with 41% in opposition and 9% who didn’t have an opinion.

“It’s not going to be too long before the simple aging of the U.S. population produces a lasting pro-gay marriage majority,” the Pew Research report read. “The people who are opposed to it are gradually dying out and being replaced in the electorate by voters who are perfectly comfortable with it.”

Similar bills are currently being considered in Illinois and Minnesota. 

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