Massachusetts Ruling Stirs Gay-Union Backlash
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
Ohio is expected to lead a state government backlash against gay marriages by adopting a law forbidding its agencies to grant marriage-like benefits to same-sex couples. Supporters predict the ground-breaking prohibition will win easy final passage in the Ohio legislature as early as this month. Republican Gov. Bob Taft has pledged to sign it into law.
While 37 other states already have so-called "Defense of Marriage Acts (DOMAs)" on the books, none goes so far as Ohio's proposal. It would make the Buckeye State the first in the nation to prohibit state policies that extend marriage-like benefits such as dependent health insurance, hospital visitation rights and child custody to same-sex couples.
Gay rights advocates cite the Ohio bill, which passed the state House last December 73-to-23, as an example of a backlash against gay rights sweeping states as a result of several recent gay-friendly court rulings. Foremost among them was the Nov. 18 Massachusetts high court decision that gay and lesbian couples have the right to wed under the state's constitution. The Massachusetts decision, which takes effect May 18, is being fiercely contested by lawmakers and groups opposed to gay marriage.
"The (Massachusetts) decision lit a fire and, as good a decision as it was and as precedent-setting as it was, in places like Ohio and all over the country it's going to cause this kind of backlash," said Tim Downing, head of Ohioans for Growth and Equality, an advocacy group promoting marriage equality for gays.
Despite a recent victory in New Jersey, where lawmakers granted same-sex couples many of the same benefits married couples enjoy, advocates said they're seeing renewed efforts to pass DOMAs in some states that have not banned gay marriage. Besides Ohio at present, the ban-free states are Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
"Especially in those 13 states, we are seeing an elevated level of interest and we're doing everything we can to prevent those states from passing legislation that will jeopardize the rights of gay and lesbian families," said Seth Kilborn of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights organization.
Observers say lawmakers in Wisconsin and New Mexico are also close to passing DOMA legislation this spring. States where DOMA laws will likely be proposed but passage is unclear are Connecticut, Maryland and New Hampshire.
But of those challenges, gay-rights advocates say they are most concerned with the Ohio bill, which is expected to gain easy passage in the state Senate where Republicans have a 22-11 majority.
"This bill is not only discriminatory and adversely affects 250,000 Ohioans who live in unmarried households, but it puts at risk inclusive employee benefits and policies that currently exist in 53 Ohio companies," including Ohio-based Proctor & Gamble, one of the state's largest employers, said Downing of Ohioans for Growth and Equality.
The bill states that "any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of this state that extends the specific statutory benefits of legal marriage to nonmarital relationships between persons of the same sex or different sexes is void."
While that prohibits only state agencies from extending marriage-like benefits to gay couples, opponents say it would open the way to lawsuits challenging the extension of such benefits even by private companies.
Supporters play down the potential impact of the law on private employee benefits, saying that is not the primary intent of the law. But they insist the law is necessary in light of the Massachusetts decision.
"We are hoping it passes before the 180 day period the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has given their state legislature, because we do believe that the law is needed in Ohio to keep us from being forced to recognize other state's same-sex marriages," said David Miller, vice president of Citizens for Community Values, an Ohio advocacy group.
In three states where legislative bans on gay marriage have not succeeded Wisconsin, New Mexico and Massachusetts -- efforts are under way to achieve the same goal by amending the state constitution.
The Wisconsin legislature, taken over by a Republican majority in 2002, passed a DOMA in 2003 that was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. The veto was upheld in the legislature by one vote.
Conservative lawmakers plan to bypass the governor's veto pen by proposing an amendment to Wisconsin's constitution that would ban same-sex marriage. Only four states Alaska, California, Nebraska and Nevada have incorporated DOMA laws into their state constitutions.
An amendment to the Badger State Constitution must be passed by two consecutive legislative sessions before going to a statewide vote. Supporters say they are confident they can bring an amendment to a public vote by 2005.
Gay rights activists in New Mexico said a DOMA amendment will likely be introduced during the legislature's 30-day budget session beginning January 20. Opponents said it could easily pass on a floor vote, but they hope to see the proposal killed in committee.
If the legislature passes a proposed amendment, it would go to a statewide vote during the general election next November.
Opponents of the Massachusetts gay marriage decision plan to overturn it by passing a DOMA amendment to the Bay State Constitution. But like Wisconsin, Massachusetts' constitutional amendments must be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions, which would take until 2006 before going to a statewide vote.
Anti-gay marriage protesters rallied at the state capitol early in January to persuade lawmakers to pass such an amendment during a constitutional convention in February. Gay rights advocates held a counter-rally the same week.
Said Arline Isaacson, spokesperson for MassEquality, which helped organize the rally: "If people divorced 12 times can marry, as well as convicted child molesters, wife beaters and murderers, a woman who just met a millionaire on network TV, and Britney Spears when she's drunk and thoughtless, then why can't same-sex couples in committed, long-term relationships marry?"