By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Acknowledging a high level of state and national interest, Gov. Bob Taft is preparing a carefully worded statement that will accompany his signature on a bill banning same-sex marriages in Ohio.
The governor's support for the controversial Defense of Marriage Act has not waned, but the governor will offer an explanation of how it works and why he supports it. Taft could sign it as early as today without any ceremony.
"There's a lot of confusion out there about what this bill does and doesn't do," said Orest Holubec, Taft's spokesman. "The governor does believe that it's worth reaffirming our law with respect to marriage."
Taft declined to explain his position on the bill while in Washington for a speech.
Of the 5,946 letters, e-mails and faxes Taft has received, 3,069 urged him to sign the bill while 2,877 asked him to veto it. Taft's office has fielded 2,478 phone messages for the bill while 2,929 callers were opposed.
The bill was approved 72-22 on Tuesday by the Ohio House and in January by the Senate on an 18-15 vote.
It defines a legal marriage as being between one man and one woman. While Ohio never sanctioned gay or lesbian marriages, the bill specifically states that same-sex marriages are against the "strong public policy'' of the state of Ohio.
The inclusion of the phrase is seen as a way for Ohio to deny recognition of same-sex civil unions or marriages from other states. Normally, states must honor other states' marriage contracts.
The bill goes further than similar defense of marriage acts by also prohibiting state employees from getting benefits for domestic partners, whether gay or straight.
Ohio is only the second state, after Nebraska, that would prohibit benefits for state employees' unmarried partners. The Nebraska law is being challenged in court.
Some letters to Taft have come from university and business leaders who say the new law would hurt their efforts to attract and keep employees.
"We are concerned that the bill is inconsistent with the principles of inclusion that are central to our enterprise," wrote Sandy West, vice president of human resources for Limited Brands Inc. The Columbus-based retail giant owns Victoria's Secret, Bath and Body Works and Limited stores.
Miami University President James C. Garland said Taft's signature on the law would hurt his efforts to recruit new professors.
"Based on our experience, I am concerned that many prospective faculty members will pass over job positions in Ohio, because of this legislation," Garland wrote.
Holubec said the bill does not stop private businesses from offering domestic partner benefits. He said the governor would address universities' concerns in his bill-signing statement.
The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, said Miami University's ability to offer benefits won't change under this law.
"If they had the right to do it before, they have the right to do it now," Seitz said. "They don't offer those benefits now.''
Miami University spokesman Richard Little said it's true the school doesn't offer benefits to same-sex couples. He said he didn't know if the bill would bar the university from offering those benefits.
"The simple fact of the matter is this is going to affect our ability to recruit - to recruit faculty in particular," Little said.
Laws that define marriage as between a man and a woman have passed in 37 other states. President Clinton signed a federal Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Kentucky and Indiana are considering a constitutional amendment to define marriage.
President Bush has said he would support a federal constitutional amendment to declare that marriage is between a man and a woman because judges are making ill-advised decisions.
On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed its November ruling that same-sex couples are legally entitled to marry and that laws forbidding it are discriminatory.
Asked about the Massachusetts decision, Taft said, "That's exactly what I'll be talking about" when he signs the Ohio bill.
The bill's opponents say the state is moving in the wrong direction.
"We need to have the most inclusive laws," said Tim Downing, board president of Ohioans for Growth and Equality, a group that formed to oppose Ohio's Defense of Marriage Act. "We need to have a state that is not intolerant."
Downing said Taft's decision to sign the bill will hurt Ohio's chances to lure in new high-tech jobs and businesses, which is one of the governor's top goals this year.
The group's spokesman, Alan Melamed, said he thinks Taft wasn't prepared for the response he got.
"I think he's finding out the impact is far greater than he thought," Melamed said. "This is probably more than he expected."
Same-sex marriage was never a top issue of Taft's during his first term or during his re-election campaign. Nonetheless, Holubec said the governor believes the law is needed.
"(Marriage) is an institution the governor believes is worth reaffirming," Holubec said. "He thinks we should act now considering what's going on in Massachusetts and other states."
What Taft will say in his statement is still a mystery. Seitz said he's unconcerned.
"He can make whatever statement he wants," said Seitz, "as long as his autograph is at the bottom of the bill."
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