Delaware's ban on sexual orientation discrimination intact

This editorial was published in the July 5 edition of the Wilmington News Journal

 By Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, Speaker of the House

 

Five years ago this past Wednesday, I stood in the heart of my district at CAMP Rehoboth, surrounded by hundreds of friends and supporters, and watched Gov. Jack Markell sign into law legislation that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. It was the end of a long, long journey that began years before I was first elected in 2002, but one I have believed in for as long as I can remember.

For those unfamiliar, the effort to add "sexual orientation" to a list of groups protected from discrimination in housing, employment and services had been ongoing since at least 2000. The legislation was based on the very foundation on which our country stands – that we treat all of our citizens with dignity and respect, and that includes respecting the human rights of all people. Discrimination in any form is wrong.

Until that point five years ago today, Delawareans could be denied housing or a job if someone disagreed with a person's sexual orientation or what they thought was their sexual orientation. It is almost too shocking today to say.

Every time we discussed and voted on this anti-discrimination legislation, we heard the same sky-is-falling concerns from people: passing this bill would lead to lawsuits against small businesses; business owners could go to jail for refusing service to someone; it would force churches to hire people who are gay; it would infringe on people's freedoms.

Five years later, we see that all of those concerns simply weren't true. None of that has come to pass. Society is continuing to function, and we as a state have said that fellow Delawareans should not be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

What is absolutely amazing to consider here in 2014 is how far we've come in the five years since the signing of Senate Bill 121. It took a decade to get that bill passed, but since then, we have passed civil unions for same-sex couples and marriage equality for couples of all genders, and we provided the same anti-discrimination protections to people based on gender identity.

Each of these bills had the same pushback and opposition that the sexual orientation anti-discrimination legislation had: questions of religious freedom (which has been addressed in every bill we have considered), damage to small businesses and infringing on individuals' rights. None of those concerns have come to fruition. Businesses are continuing to operate in an anti-discrimination climate.

All of the recent progress started five years ago, when Delaware said "no" to discrimination against a person because of who they love. The end of that decade-long fight in Legislative Hall and the resulting non-controversy since then has shown us that we did the right thing and we are continuing to do the right thing for Delawareans.

I do have to tip my cap to former Rep. Bill Oberle, a Newark Republican who led the anti-discrimination effort and brought me into the fold as a freshman legislator in 2003. Former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner deserves a lot of credit for going out on a political limb and saying she would sign the anti-discrimination legislation – though she unfortunately never got the chance before her term ended.

It's hard to believe that so much has happened in the past five years in the name of equality, but it is truly heartwarming when you stop and think about it