Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Wording leaves details to courts

Gay-marriage amendment

By Carrie Spencer
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment denying legal status to unmarried couples say it's needed to protect Ohio's 2-month-old gay marriage ban from a court challenge.

But lawyers, including the state representative who wrote that law, say the amendment is so unclear that it would lead to years of court battles if it gets in the Ohio Constitution.

The Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage submitted 391,794 signatures on Tuesday to Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's office. Almost 323,000 need to be certified to get on the November ballot.

'Approximate' rules

The amendment would define marriage as between a man and a woman. It also would prohibit any legal status for unmarried couples "that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage."

The language would lead to "years, if not decades, of litigation" on arrangements such as two-person adoptions approved in another state, said Kent Markus, associate law professor at Capital University.

"All of the problems arise in the last phrase," said Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican and attorney. He wrote the state's gay marriage law to apply only to rights already in law, such as not testifying against a spouse.

Words such as "intent" and "approximate" are by definition vague, he said, and courts would have to decide on "design, qualities, significance or effect."

"When I go in a ballot box will I vote yes on it? Probably, because I appreciate what they're trying to do," Seitz said. "As a lawyer, I would not put my own stamp of approval on it."

About the benefits

Three of 13 proposed amendments in other states stop at the marriage definition.

"That's a waste of time, if you are just going to protect the name and you don't care about the benefits," said Phil Burress, president of Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values and leader of the petition drive.

Burress said the amendment is needed because the highest court in Massachusetts allowed gay marriage, and he doesn't trust the Ohio Supreme Court to rule differently. But he acknowledged those justices would have to interpret the amendment.

"There's no way to avoid the courts," he said. "More important is whether it's going to get on the ballot."

Burress said he hoped courts would rule the amendment means the end of health insurance that some public universities, the city of Columbus and many private employers extend to workers' same-sex partners.

Seniors living together

The amendment doesn't specifically mention public universities or their private contracts, but they still could be considered part of state government, said John F. Burns, director of legal affairs at Ohio University, which offers the benefits.

Alan Melamed, managing the campaign against the amendment, said the proposal would affect couples such as senior citizens who live together but don't marry because they would lose pension benefits from a deceased spouse.

He said it also could affect employment benefits offered by many corporations, which would hurt employee recruiting.

'Slippery slope'

Amendment supporters who helped sort and box petitions at a Columbus church said they hoped for a broad effect because people should not live together out of wedlock.

The Rev. Kazava Smith, pastor of Corinthian Baptist Church in Cincinnati, said approving civil unions was a "slippery slope."

"The strategy of the homosexuals has been to soften the issue," he said. "The gays' thrust is to legitimize the lifestyle."

Blackwell will send the petitions back to the counties of origin for election boards to certify that the signatures come from registered voters. That could take about two weeks, Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo said.

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