DOVER — “We’re legal.”
That’s what Lisa Goodman and Drewry Fennell looked at one another and said after their civil union ceremony almost a year ago in Wilmington.
Their noon ceremony was the first in Delaware on Jan. 1, when the state’s Civil Union and Equality Act of 2011 became effective. The law recognizes civil unions between same-sex couples and provides partners the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities afforded to married couples.
“Even though we’ve been together for a long time, standing up in front of your community and government, and our church family as well, and having it be official and recognized by all of those entities, really does make you feel different in a wonderful way,” said Ms. Goodman, president of Equality Delaware, which spearheaded support for the law.
Since their ceremony, scores of same-sex couples have followed in Delaware.
“The numbers I’ve looked at have far exceeded expectations,” said New Castle County Clerk of the PeaceKen Boulden, who knew by the first quarter that his guesstimate of four civil union ceremonies a month was woefully off base.
As of late this week, the state’s three marriage bureaus had issued roughly 565 civil union licenses since the law took effect and conducted at least 200 ceremonies.
Sussex County Clerk of the Peace George Parish, who leaves office Dec. 31, issued 14 licenses on the very first day they were available this year. (With government holidays, that was Jan. 3.) Kent County Clerk Loretta Wooten issued nearly a half dozen.
After the required 24-hour waiting period, the first civil union ceremonies began downstate Jan. 4.
As Delaware approaches its first anniversary for recognizing and conducting civil unions, other states have joined the movement. Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington state approved gay marriage in November, making them the first states to do so by popular vote. Gay marriage already was legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia, but those laws were either enacted by lawmakers or through court rulings.
Maine’s law became effective Dec. 29 and Maryland’s law takes effect Tuesday.
Ms. Goodman commended Delaware’s lawmakers and Gov. Jack Markell for passing civil union legislation, but said on the federal level, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
She expects other states to move toward marriage bills and anticipates progress in Delaware, as well.
“We are working on two things in particular,” she said, but declined to give details until after the legislators meet. The General Assembly is to convene Jan. 8.
Bill Humphrey, statewide director of Delaware Right To Marry, a political action committee, also declined to comment on plans until early next year.
Ms. Goodman said the legal recognition that comes from having a civil union has changed her life and the lives of many others. She noted two friends who, without Delaware’s civil union legislation, would not have been able to put their spouses on their health insurance plan.
“For both of them, the ability to have that worry taken off their minds and know they will be able to care for their spouse really represents what commitment and recognition is all about,” she said.
Creation of the law providing for civil unions didn’t come without its opposition, as many groups and individuals spoke out during debate on the bill in both the House and Senate. Legislators heard hours of debate in both chambers in a whirlwind process that started with the bill’s introduction March 22 and culminated with Gov. Markell signing it into law at a celebration in Wilmington on May 11.
Opponents argued the bill was a first step toward same-sex marriage in Delaware, that its financial cost was too much for the state to bear and that a referendum would be a more appropriate venue for such a decision to be made. Advocates cited the equal rights and recognition it would bring.
Chris Beagle, a Realtor with Prudential Gallo in Rehoboth Beach, had testified in the House and Senate for the civil union bill almost a year ago.
Even while other states were passing civil union and marriage equality laws, Mr. Beagle, who met his partner Eric Engelhart when they both were studying at Pennsylvania State University 23 years ago, said they made a firm commitment to wait until Delaware took action.
“We wanted to do it locally,” he said.
On Sept. 15, in front of 150 people at Silver Lake in Rehoboth, Mr. Beagle and Mr. Engelhart said their vows on their 23rd anniversary.
The couple heard many comments from friends asking why they would even bother with a civil union — after all they had been together for most of their lives.
“We bothered, because now we can,” Mr. Beagle said.
This year, the couple was inspired to start Flare, a small event-planning company in Rehoboth Beach, and has organized nearly a dozen civil unions throughout the state.
Their personal experience in such planning is evident in the business logo: “We know how important your day is because we waited half our lives for ours.”
Boost to business
Economically, the law has created revenue in an area that was lagging; officials said marriage bureaus historically aren’t self-sustaining offices that make money for their counties.
The number of marriage licenses in Delaware, and across the country, is on the decline. “It’s a national trend,” Mr. Boulden said. “Since the year 2000, the percentage of marriages are decreasing.”
New Castle’s office issued 2,556 marriage licenses in 2012, down from about 3,300 several years ago. The office issued 235 civil union licenses this year.
Revenue from civil union licenses and ceremonies, which cost the same as marriage licenses and ceremonies, has helped counter the deficit, Mr. Boulden said.
“It’s not only replacing the marriage licenses we don’t see anymore, it’s exceeding the numbers that we thought we would have gotten,” he said. “It’s been a source of increased revenue.”
Both marriage and civil union licenses are valid for 30 days and cost the same amount of money, $50 for Delaware residents; $100 for non-residents.
As anticipated, Delaware’s clerks have seen business from out-of-state couples seeking a privilege that isn’t available where they live. New Castle Deputy Clerk Tom Coviello estimated that 15 percent of the licenses, for both marriages and civil unions, comes from out-of-state applicants.
With still a few days left in 2012, marriage bureau staffers lasts week estimated they had:
•issued 80 civil union licenses in Kent County and conducted at least 54 unions.
•issued 250 civil union licenses in Sussex County and conducted 75 ceremonies.
•issued 235 civil union licenses in New Castle and performed more than 100.
As with marriages, not every couple’s ceremony is conducted by the clerk’s offices, but all couples who have ceremonies — marriage or civil union — must have a Delaware license.
“You have to be standing on Delaware soil with a Delaware license,” said Marty Hayes, licensing specialist II with the Kent County Clerk of the Peace office. She found a couple waiting on a bench for the office to open so they could apply for their license when they became available in Delaware Jan. 3.
In Sussex County, Mr. Parish said the civil union-related business is one of many ways the office trimmed the deficit since he took office.
Though he spoke against same-sex civil unions in the General Assembly, he performed them with enthusiasm, citing his responsibility as an elected official to carry out the laws as defined in Delaware. He has said the issue should have been decided in a referendum and did not seek re-election this year. DemocratJohn Brady takes office Jan. 1.
On Friday, preparing for his final days as Clerk of the Peace, Mr. Parish said he hoped that Mr. Brady would be responsive to the public “and may he have as much fun in this office as George Parish was privileged to do.”
Mr. Parish and Deputy Clerk Annie Besche have offered “memorable marriage ceremonies and celebrated civil unions” anytime and any place that couples wish to have them, outside of normal business hours and beyond the Georgetown office, from beaches to parks and clubs.
“Our primary goal is to provide absolutely courteous and professional services to the general public,” Mr. Parish said.
The willingness to be available nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week has doubled business. The office now officiates at least 600 ceremonies compared to the 300 when he first took office.
“We were able to generate additional revenue,” Mr. Parish said.
Increasing the volume of fees, and embracing “management innovations” has decreased a prior deficit of $95,000 a year to $14,000 for the fiscal year that ended in June.
“I anticipate that amount will be further diminished because of the volume of business Sussex County should expect” in civil unions and marriages, Mr. Parish said.
In New Castle County, Mr. Boulden said the staff has come up with innovative ways to make money for his department, through selling name change kits, photos of the ceremonies, offering online broadcasts of ceremonies, gift cards and heirloom certificates.
Implementing software changes and training ultimately cost less than $100,000 statewide, and as of October, the New Castle clerks’ office estimated that civil union licensing and ceremony fees had generated more than $37,000 in that county.
But, citing hardware, software and maintenance costs, Ms. Hayes said, “All the costs are so exceedingly high, it’s not like we’re turning a profit.”
Mr. Boulden agreed, “but we’re coming a hell of a lot closer to breaking even,” he said.
After Delaware became the seventh state to allow civil unions of same-sex couples, he and his office last year led efforts to implement software adaptations and train staff, not only for the three marriage bureaus, but for other agencies, such as Social Security and the state Division of Motor Vehicles, that would be impacted.
“We’re not only receiving inquiries from other states,” Mr. Boulden said, “we’re receiving inquiries from other countries.”
Representatives from Israel spent time in the office to observe the county model, which Mr. Boulden said was recognized by the National Association of Counties.
“Delaware has the most comprehensive civil union act in the nation, which is why other states look to us,” he said. “It cost less to initiate and it has been a positive revenue stream that has solved a problem.
This story contains material from the Associated Press.