By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Gov. Bob Taft on Friday signed a bill banning same-sex marriages that he said has been inaccurately portrayed and misunderstood.
"First and foremost, this is not a law of intolerance," Taft said in an unusual two-page written statement meant to explain what Ohio's new Defense of Marriage Act does and does not do. The governor signed the bill in private.
The new law, which takes effect in 90 days, defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. It says same-sex marriages entered into in other states will not be recognized in Ohio.
Taft pointed to a 4-3 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision in November that declared denial of a marriage license to same-sex partners was unconstitutional. This week the Massachusetts court required the legislature to allow "marriages,'' not civil unions, between same-sex partners.
"Four judges in another state should not, and cannot, hold the power to redefine marriage in Ohio," Taft wrote.
Taft said the Ohio law has been misunderstood to mean it prohibits state government and public universities from offering health insurance and other benefits to the domestic partners of their employees. Gay-rights activists have said only Nebraska has a more restrictive law.
The Ohio bill denies to non-married couples benefits specifically reserved to a spouse, husband or wife. Those include passing on property without a will, testifying in court, and the right to alimony and support.
"The bill maintains current Ohio laws that allow non-married persons to adopt, give a power of attorney, inherit property by will, assume child custody or guardianship, or visit someone in the hospital,'' Taft said.
There's nothing in the law, Taft said, that would stop university or state employers from granting health and retirement benefits to same-sex partners.
Lambda Legal, a gay-rights legal advocacy group that is challenging a similar Defense of Marriage Act in Nebraska, agreed with the governor's interpretation.
"Our position is that it has no legal application to domestic partnership benefits on any level of state government," said Camilla Taylor, a staff attorney who has examined the new law.
Richard Little, a Miami University spokesman, said the governor's statement on offering domestic partner benefits is reassuring. Miami does not offer such benefits.
"The problem is the perception that emerges, that Ohio will not provide a tolerant climate for gay and lesbian individuals," Little said.
Miami University President James Garland had urged Taft to veto the bill.
Tim Downing, board president of Ohioans for Growth and Equality, a group that formed to oppose the new law, said it will undermine efforts to expand domestic partner benefits in the public and private sectors.
"It's a lot more far-reaching than what (Taft's) saying," Downing said.
None of the health plans the state offers its 53,662 non-university workers covers same-sex or domestic partners, according to the Ohio Department of Administrative Services. Downing said the new law could make it harder for unions to bargain for those benefits.
"I predict there will be a lawsuit of some kind filed, arguing that this is unconstitutional," Downing said.
The new law will hurt Ohio's image, scaring away conventioneers, new businesses, jobs and talented employees, he said.
"Ohio is not a welcoming state," Downing said. "Gov. Taft has put a 'Do Not Enter' sign on the doors of the statehouse to unmarried couples."
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, disagreed.
"Ohio is, always has been, and always will remain a friendly state."
Gov. Bob Taft on Friday made several points in signing House Bill 272, the Defense of Marriage Act. In a statement, he said the bill:
Allows private employers to provide domestic partner benefits. It explicitly exempts private agreements from its requirements.
Allows local governments to provide domestic partner benefits or to establish a domestic partner registry.
Allows state universities - whether unionized or not - to provide domestic partner benefits. The boards of trustees of state-supported colleges and universities have the discretion to decide to whom they offer benefits.
Allows state workers in collective bargaining units to receive domestic partner benefits if they are provided for in negotiated labor agreements.
Does not prohibit state workers exempt from the bargaining unit from receiving domestic partner benefits.
Maintains the freedom of churches to perform and sanctify civil unions between same-sex couples.
Maintains Ohio laws allowing non-married persons to adopt, give power of attorney, inherit property by will, assume child custody or guardianship, or visit someone in the hospital.
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