Legislation that would create civil unions for same-sex couples in Delaware marched one step closer to approval after clearing a Senate committee.

Legislation that would create civil unions for same-sex couples in Delaware marched one step closer to approval last week after clearing a Senate committee.

Four members of the Senate Administration and Elections Committee voted to move the bill to the floor of the chamber after hearing two hours of testimony from those on both sides of the controversial issue.

Senators Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, Dr. Michael Katz, D-Centerville, and lead bill sponsor Dave Sokola, D-Newark, all gave the legislation a favorable recommendation. Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington West, also endorsed the bill.

The committee’s two Republicans, Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Kenton, and Sen. Joe Booth, R-Georgetown, did not take positions on the bill.

Senate Bill 30, which has the support of Gov. Jack Markell, would make civil unions legal for same-sex couples only, reserving the legal designation of marriage for heterosexual couples.

According to the bill, civil unions would be created and dissolved in the same manner as marriages and clergy would not be required to perform civil union ceremonies.

A civil union would entitle a couple to all applicable benefits, protections and responsibilities granted to married couples under state law. Partners would be able to make medical decisions for each other in emergencies, share parental rights and be entitled to inherit property.

Federal rules related to taxes, benefits and health care for married couples would supercede Delaware’s civil union rules, since the federal government does not recognize civil unions.

During the committee hearing, opponents of the bill argued that it is designed to be a stepping-stone to redefining marriage in the future.

Nicole Theis, executive director of the Delaware Family Policy Council, said the example has been set by other states that first approved civil unions then legalized gay marriage.

“Our position is that this debate has nothing to do with civil rights, we all have the same freedom to marry a member of the opposite sex,” she said. “Marriage is about bringing male and female together, and that is good. Same-sex marriage redefines marriage, saying that men and women are optional for the family.”

Five states and Washington, D.C., currently allow same-sex marriages and seven others permit civil unions or some type of same-sex domestic partnership, while four more states recognize same-sex unions from other states, according to national lobbying group Freedom to Marry.

Equality Delaware board member Mark Purpura said SB 30 is not a gay marriage bill, but a bill that acknowledges the rights of loving couples.

“This bill does not amend the definition of marriage under Delaware law; marriage will remain available only to opposite sex couples,” he said. “The government grants these rights, benefits and protections to encourage and reward those individuals who, in love, publicly commit themselves to each other.”

Others raised religious opposition to the notion of same-sex relationships and said marriage is intended to promote procreation within society.

“I believe God’s word says man with man and woman with woman is an abomination, I don’t want people going to hell,” said Lee Littleton, a former state senator from Sussex County. “I think this bill OK’ing man with man and woman with woman is a sin against God. He will judge us, and I don’t want our state and our nation to be judged with the wrath of God.”

Lisa Goodman, Equality Delaware director, said civil unions are exactly that, a civil matter.

“It’s not about religion, it’s not about procreation, it’s not about some private purpose; this bill is about fairness and equality,” she said. “This is a moderate bill based on what already exists in Delaware law to provide some but not all of the rights and protections that opposing sex couples enjoy.”

Putting aside differing moral views, Bethany Beach resident Phillip Drew said the enactment of SB 30 would put an additional financial burden on the state.

“This bill adds costs to county and local governments during a period when budgets should be cut, not increased,” he said.

According to the Controller General’s office, the establishment of civil unions would cost the state between $115,000 and $225,000 more next fiscal year in state employee insurance premiums. The office estimates the addition of more partners and dependant children to the health insurance plan would result in between 0.3 and 0.6% in additional claims.

An independent analysis of the bill’s impact completed by the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the civil unions bill will only cost the state $93,000 in year one. Additional state insurance costs, the Williams Institute says, will be partly offset by additional tourism revenue and licensing fees.

However, the Controller General’s Office said those factors are “small in comparison to the impact on state benefits.”

New Castle County Clerk of the Peace Ken Boulden testified that SB 30 would put a substantial burden on offices like his.

“The cost to the three counties in the state of Delaware, to prepare everything we need to do in technology to prepare for this bill, is approximately $90,000,” he said.

Email Doug Denison at doug.denison@doverpost.com