By Eric Stern
In 2004, President Bush and the Republican Party made passage of discriminatory anti-marriage amendments a centerpiece of their electoral strategy. In an effort to increase turnout among their base, Republicans argued that these amendments would protect families. However, these amendments are actually undermining the stability of the American family. The 13 states that passed anti-marriage amendments last year are now realizing that their impact reaches far beyond rendering gay and lesbian families strangers to the law.
When Ohio approved its anti-marriage amendment in November, Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell admitted that its passage was a politically driven effort closely coordinated with the Bush/Cheney campaign. Blackwell headlined rallies supporting the amendment, telling reporters that it would help increase voter turnout for the President. As in other states, Ohio Republicans were so eager to time an amendment vote with a presidential election that they rushed the measure to the ballot box without thinking through the consequences of their actions.
Last week in Ohio, two county courts ruled that the state cannot apply domestic violence law to unmarried couples based on the recently approved anti-marriage amendment. Both cases involved heterosexual couples who were living together but not legally married.
In the first case, the court reduced a felony domestic violence charge to a misdemeanor after the defendant’s lawyer successfully argued that, under the recently passed amendment, domestic violence charges could only be brought against a perpetrator legally married to the victim. The day after the first ruling, a second court, again citing the amendment, dismissed domestic violence charges against a man accused of physically abusing his live-in girlfriend. The judge in the second case wrote that the new amendment must be interpreted while taking into account the political climate when it was passed – a climate, according to the court, that disparaged gay and lesbian residents and other non-traditional families.
In both cases, the court ruled that the amendment prohibits the state from recognizing, among unmarried couples, the “qualities, significance or effect of marriage.” Both judges concluded that the provision voids aspects of Ohio’s domestic violence laws that addressed individuals “living as a spouse,” but not legally married.
Champions of the Ohio anti-marriage amendment were warned by opponents that the amendment’s language would lead to consequences beyond banning legal recognition of gay and lesbian families. Specifically, the chairman of the campaign working to defeat the amendment told reporters in October that, if passed, the amendment would leave individuals in unmarried relationships without the full protection of domestic violence laws. Blackwell also turned down a request to change the amendment’s language after opponents warned of similar dangers arising from the amendment’s broadly written text.
These recent rulings provide concrete examples of how anti-marriage amendments deprive vulnerable individuals of legal protections. Currently, dozens more men are using the amendment to try to have their abuse charges reduced or dismissed. The publicity around these cases is undoubtedly having a chilling effect on victims of abuse who already lack the confidence and support necessary in many circumstances to seek the protection of the law.
Republicans in Ohio are scrambling to change domestic violence laws in an attempt to restore legal protections to abuse victims. However, their efforts only apply a small bandage to a deepening gash as courts are likely, based on the broad language of the amendment, to continue to question domestic violence law and any legal arrangements, such as living wills, between unmarried partners.
As family, security and domestic violence protections in Ohio unravel, other states with anti-marriage legislation are beginning to experience similar problems. Eight of the eleven states that passed anti-marriage amendments in November endorsed wording as vague as that of Ohio’s. In Michigan, the state scrapped a plan to offer domestic partnership benefits to state workers in light of the passage of their own anti-marriage amendment. Similarly, Utah has now dropped a proposal to offer comparable benefits for employees of the state university system. In Virginia, Democratic Governor Mark Warner signed legislation this week that allows companies to offer private domestic partner benefits after Republicans realized that their anti-marriage legislation was harming business investment in the commonwealth.
Anti-marriage amendments will continue to create legal chaos in states while lawmakers scramble to pass corrective legislation. Similarly, Republicans in Congress have introduced several versions of a federal anti-marriage amendment while supporters can’t agree on what these different drafts would do if ratified. Despite the large-scale confusion over these amendments, Republicans continue to push them because they believe they may bring short-term benefits at the ballot box.
National Stonewall Democrats is working on the local level to build broad coalitions to combat upcoming marriage amendments, and we are initiating campaign trainings this year for these coalitions in states like Alabama which will face such a measure in 2006. All families should be concerned about the impact of anti-marriage legislation. By working with our allies to educate our neighbors about the legal uncertainty created by these measures, we can help voters prevent the legal chaos that exists in states like Ohio.