Delaware Legislature Considers Same-Sex Civil Unions

Delaware’s General Assembly will consider a new bill that would permit civil unions for same-sex couples. The Civil Union and Equality Act of 2011 was introduced by Sen. Sokola & Sorenson and Reps. George & Schooley.

A civil union would be parallel, but not equal to, marriage – which would remain reserved for heterosexual couples. Parties to a civil union will bear the same responsibilities and enjoy the same rights and protections, to the extent possible, as exist for married spouses.

The Act removes the criminal penalties under Delaware law for marrying a same-sex spouse in another jurisdiction, and recognizes those marriages as well as similar legal relationships entered into outside of Delaware as civil unions, not as marriages. For example, if a same-sex couple gets married in Vermont and moves to Delaware, their Vermont marriage would be recognized as a civil union in Delaware, not as a marriage

The Act cannot, and does not, alter federal non-recognition of civil unions.

If passed, what will this mean for Delaware employers?

First, employers generally will be required to make whatever employee benefits that are offered to a married spouse available to a spouse in a civil union.  The Act would not cover those currently not protected by Delaware’s discriminations laws: (a) employers with less than 4 employees, or (b) religious corporations with respect to discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Second, private employers offering health and retirement benefits that are subject to ERISA — a federal law — may not be required to offer such benefits to a spouse in a civil union.  This is because the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) defines “marriage” as only between a man and a woman, and a “spouse” as only a person of the opposite sex, for purposes of federal law, and ERISA preempts inconsistent state law. However, the present commitment to enforce DOMA remains an open question.

On February 23, 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would cease legal defense of the Act’s Section 3 at the direction of President Barack Obama, who had reached a conclusion that Section 3 was unconstitutional. However, Congress may defend the law in court in place of the administration, and on March 4, 2011, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced he was taking steps to defend Section 3 in place of the Department of Justice. Given the uncertain state of current law, employers will need to stay tuned as to the current position of the administration if or when Delaware’s bill passes to best assess how to handle the conflicts between state and federal law on this issue.

Third, employers who currently offer benefits for same-sex partners will want to consider changing its policy so that benefits are only offered for same-sex partners who have entered into a civil union. This is because if you offer benefits only to homosexual partners who have not entered into a civil union, but do not offer those same benefits to unmarried heterosexual partners, you face potential exposure to a sexual orientation discrimination lawsuit under Delaware law.