Delaware Senate tables equal rights bill

Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, following the debate Tuesday on the Senate floor, said shortly before the discussion he feels the classes of people included in the bill’s proposal are already protected under law. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, following the debate Tuesday on the Senate floor, said shortly before the discussion he feels the classes of people included in the bill’s proposal are already protected under law.
(Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — A bill to guarantee protection against discrimination for people of all races, genders, religions and sexual orientations under the Delaware Constitution was tabled in the Senate due to lack of support Tuesday.

Senate Bill 190, sponsored by Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, would add to the state constitution a line stating, “Equal protection under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of race, sex, age, religion, creed, color, familial status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or national origin.”

In a speech on the Senate floor she cited statistics claiming black men and women are sentenced more often than whites, and women are paid less than men with equal qualifications.

“Neither state nor federal laws nor constitutions offer any redress” for people discriminated against because of their race, gender or sexual orientation, she said.

Discussion was short-lived — after about 15 minutes of Sen. Peterson speaking and Delaware Law School Dean Rod Smolla testifying in support of the proposal, the senator from Stanton requested the measure be tabled.

She said afterward the bill was one vote short.

Because it is a constitutional amendment, two-thirds support is needed. That means the bill would have to pick up some votes from Republicans.

Opponents have said current provisions in state law would make the bill redundant

“I think a lot of people are concerned that under a strict interpretation … that when we talk about gender identity that this could open up girls’ gyms and dressing rooms in schools,” Minority Leader Sen. F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said at the committee hearing last week.

Sen. Peterson rejected those charges, accusing the “religious right” of presenting incorrect facts.

“It never ceases to amaze me that people who wrap themselves in scripture have no problem lying or distorting facts to further their agenda of bigotry,” she said.

Because Sen. Peterson called for the bill to be tabled before any discussion could take place, no other lawmakers weighed in on the floor.

Sen. Ernesto “Ernie” Lopez, R-Lewes, revealed shortly before the discussion he would not be voting, saying in a statement he feels the classes included in the proposal are already protected.

He also said there has not been enough discussion on the bill, citing the Sunday shooting at an Orlando, Florida, gay bar that killed 49 victims.

“In the wake of Orlando, there should have been a pause and a time for reflection in order to look at what we are doing right and wrong here in Delaware and engage the equal protection conversation from a common center,” he said.

Sen. Peterson, who also announced Tuesday she is retiring from office, downplayed any disappointment. She said the bill could be brought back up by someone else next year if it does not pass this month.

“If the votes turn up for it, I’ll lift it from the table and we’ll vote on it. If not, it’ll stay on the table,” she said.

Other bills

In the House, lawmakers passed bills providing cash assistance to drug felons, raising fees for state wildlife areas and barring workplace discrimination against women who are pregnant or planning to be-come pregnant.

The proposal allowing drug felons to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds passed unanimously after some discussion.

Currently, only people who have been convicted of drug felonies and welfare fraud are prohibited from the money.

“This is definitely not a handout but a handup,” Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, insisted.

The wildlife-fee bill would increase the cost of hunting licenses from $25 to $39.50 for Delawareans and from $130 to $199.50 for non-residents. Other licenses would also go up in cost.

The anti-discrimination proposal is designed to give women privacy over their family planning decisions and prevent bosses from requiring disclosure from employees or potential hires, its proponents said.

All three measures now go to the Senate.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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