Ohio equal marriage ban used to weaken domestic violence law

'This is no surprise at all,' says marriage rights activist

By Dawn Wolfe

CLEVELAND - Citing Ohio's ban on equal marriage rights, a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge ruled that unmarried people cannot have domestic violence charges brought against them because of Ohio's new anti-gay marriage amendment. The judge changed a felony domestic violence charge against Frederick Burk, who is accused of assaulting his live-in girlfriend during a January argument, to a misdemeanor assault charge on March 23.

A Cleveland judge made a similar ruling one day later. Dozens of men are now reportedly trying to use the amendment to have charges against them reduced or thrown out.

Burk's public defender had asked the judge to throw out the charge because of the new wording in Ohio's constitution that prohibits any state or local law that would "create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals."

Ian James, the political director of Ohioans Protecting the Constitution, the group which fought the anti-gay marriage amendment, was not surprised by the judge's rulings.

"This is no surprise at all, because this is precisely what we said would occur - that not only was domestic violence law, but family law in general was in jeopardy," James said.

Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan's LGBT project, is not aware of any defense attorneys using Michigan's amendment, which bars recognition of unions that are similar to marriage "for any purpose," to overturn domestic violence laws here.

"I haven't seen anything like that - I can't say that nobody would ever do it," Kaplan said. According to Kaplan, Michigan's domestic violence law protects unmarried as well as married partners.

There is at least one clear link between the Ohio and Michigan amendments, however, said Kaplan.

"What's similar with both states is that this was never communicated to the voters in either Ohio or Michigan, that this [amendment] was prohibiting something that went beyond marriage. This was never the intent of the voters in Ohio, to allow domestic violence to be committed against unmarried couples. And that's what's outrageous," he said.

"They called these 'marriage amendments,' but at least some of the proponents had other ends in mind," he added, saying that the unintended consequences of the amendments are a cautionary tale to voters.

"When you go to vote you should be told exactly, exactly what this means," he said.

According to James, a movement is beginning in Ohio to overturn that state's amendment.

"There are a lot of people who understand and are beginning to learn that the constitutional amendment punished unmarried couples, both straight and gay, and these are the unintended consequences that were forecast and are now coming to reality," he said.

Burk, who had a prior domestic violence conviction, was originally facing a felony charge that could have resulted in an 18-month jail term. Burk now faces a misdemeanor assault charge, which carries a maximum sentence of six months.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

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