By Edith Honan
DOVER, Delaware (Reuters) - Delaware legalized gay marriage on Tuesday, making it the 11th U.S. state to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.
The state Senate approved the bill by a vote of 12-9 on Tuesday and Governor Jack Markell signed it into law half an hour later.
"I do not intend to make any of you wait one moment longer," said Markell, a Democrat who has been an outspoken advocate for same-sex marriage rights. The measure, which the state's lower house approved several weeks ago, will take effect on July 1.
Delaware is the second state in less than a week to extend marriage rights to gay couples. On Friday, Rhode Island lawmakers gave final approval to a similar measure, which Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, then signed into law. Gay couples in Rhode Island can marry from August 1.
During a three-hour debate before the vote, opponents of the bill questioned why civil unions, which were legalized for same-sex couples in the state two years ago, were not enough. They expressed worry that business owners who hold a moral objection to homosexuality will be compelled to, for example, cater same-sex weddings.
But state Senator Karen Peterson, who is gay, said the bill was about fairness and equality.
"If my pursuit of happiness somehow demeans or diminishes your marriage, then you need to work on your marriage," Peterson said.
Kira Bell, a probation and parole officer who attended the vote with her wife, Karla Bell, said: "How do you answer someone when they ask what does it feel like to be equal?"
"It's like we can finally exhale," she said. The couple were married in Connecticut.
The attention of advocates will now turn to Minnesota. On Thursday, the state House will take up a same-sex marriage bill.
Minnesota House Speaker Paul Thissen had said previously that a vote would not be scheduled unless there was enough backing to approve the measure, indicating that legislative leaders believe enough representatives support the bill for it to pass the House.
A vote has not yet been scheduled in the state Senate, but Senate Majority Leader Thomas Bakk has said that he believed there was enough support among senators to approve the measure.
Minnesota voters in November rejected a ballot measure that would have enshrined the state's current ban on same-sex marriage in its constitution.
Lawmakers in Illinois are also considering a same-sex marriage bill.
Other states that allow same-sex marriage are: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa, Maine, Maryland and Washington. Same-sex marriage is also legal in Washington, D.C.
A majority of U.S. states have constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
(Additional reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Scott Malone, Andrew Hay and Mohammad Zargham)