Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ohio gay marriage friends, foes hail domestic violence ruling

Gay marriage friends, foes hail domestic violence ruling

Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio's domestic violence laws do not conflict with the state's ban on gay marriage, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

In a 6-1 decision, justices rejected the argument that the domestic violence law is unenforceable in cases involving unmarried couples because it refers to them as living together "as a spouse."

The ruling was applauded by gay rights and civil rights groups, advocates for domestic violence victims and, in an odd confluence, the anti-gay marriage group that had sided against them in court.

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger cast the lone dissenting vote.

The decision came in a case in which a man accused of assaulting his live-in girlfriend argued he could not be charged with domestic violence because the ban on gay marriage, adopted as a constitutional amendment in 2004, prohibits the state from assigning legal status to unmarried couples.

Chief Justice Thomas Moyer said in the opinion that the domestic violence law included many groups and that describing people's living arrangements isn't the same as assigning them legal status.

"(I)t is a person's determination to share some of life's responsibilities with another that creates cohabitation," Moyer wrote. "The state does not have a role in creating cohabitation, but it does have a role in creating a marriage."

Lanzinger argued that the majority misinterpreted the amendment "thus saving the statute from being declared unconstitutional."

"Using the term 'living as a spouse' within the definition of 'family or household member' clearly expresses an intent to give an unmarried relationship a legal status that approximates the 'effect of marriage,'" she wrote.

Groups in and out of the state lined up Wednesday to applaud the ruling. The decision was being closely watched for the precedent it could set for a dozen similarly worded bans. Ohio's is among the first state Supreme Courts to interpret any of the bans passed after Massachusetts allowed same-sex marriages.

Ohio's amendment was regarded as among the broadest passed by 11 states in 2004 because it bans same-sex civil unions and denies legal status to all unmarried couples and gay marriages.

Ohio State University law professor Marc Spindelman said the decision signals the court's intent to interpret restrictions imposed by the marriage amendment carefully.

"Although the court didn't say so in just so many words, it effectively promises that the marriage amendment will be read in a way that's conditioned on reason not inflamed by the passions of traditional morality," he said.

Citizens for Community Values called Wednesday's decision a "win-win-win" for domestic violence victims, county prosecutors and gay marriage opponents, despite having filed a brief siding with the legal arguments of Michael Carswell of Lebanon, the man accused of abusing his girlfriend.

Thomas Eagle, Carswell's attorney, expressed disappointment in the ruling. He said the case can't be appealed, and Carswell now returns to Warren County to face the charges against him.

A Warren County Common Pleas judge dismissed a felony domestic violence charge against Carswell after he argued the section of the law under which he was charged conflicted with the new marriage amendment. The charge was reinstated by an appeals court. Wednesday's ruling upholds the appeals court's decision.

"I'm very glad the Defense of Marriage amendment isn't going to be used to tear apart the domestic violence statute because, to be honest, I voted for the amendment and I would vote for it again," Warren County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel said Wednesday. "I think the two can be reconciled."

CCV lawyer David Miller said the group had two purposes for getting involved in the case: to protect the amendment's definition of marriage "which prohibits counterfeits like civil unions and domestic partnerships, and ... to protect individuals from domestic violence."

But Jim Madigan, an attorney for the gay-rights legal firm Lambda Legal, said he believes the ruling will give proponents of domestic benefits for same-sex partners ammunition in future court cases.

The American Civil Liberties Union-Ohio, Ohio Domestic Violence Network and others joined the chorus of those hailing the ruling.

"Ohio's highest court has said 'no' to a system in which unmarried victims of domestic violence would have fewer rights and protections than married victims," the network's Leslie Malkin. "Today's ruling reinforces the notion of justice for all."

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