Ohio Trying To Ban Recognition Of Same-Sex Unions

By LIZ SIDOTI, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The Netherlands permits gays to marry.

Germany allows gay couples to register their unions at government offices and requires a court decision for divorce. In Vermont, same-sex civil unions are legal. And California this year approved sweeping domestic partner benefits.

As certain marriage rights were extended to same-sex couples in the past few years, conservative groups and lawmakers in several states have worked to pass laws that would prohibit states from recognizing same-sex unions performed elsewhere.

"There's an urgency now. Previously gay marriage was theoretical, now it and its variations are being legitimized. The landscape has changed," said Rep. Bill Seitz, a Republican from Cincinnati who sponsored Ohio's so-called "Defense of Marriage Act." If passed, supporters and opponents agree that it would be the most sweeping in the nation.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says Ohio was one of at least nine states in 2001 with such measures pending. The constitutional bans on same-sex marriages are aimed at keeping states from recognizing all marriages, civil unions, domestic partnerships or other similar relationships between same-sex couples.

Supporters of Defense of Marriage Acts argue that they are needed to protect the sanctity of marriage as it is traditionally recognized, as a union between a man and a woman. Opponents say they are not needed because no states recognize same-sex marriage.

The federal government and 36 states already have Defense of Marriage Acts. While no states currently allow or recognize gay marriages, Vermont's civil union law, which went into effect in July 2000, offers homosexual couples many rights, benefits and responsibilities afforded to married heterosexual couples, including tax benefits and inheritance rights.

This year, Missouri was the only state to pass a Defense of Marriage Act. That law restored a similar one that had been enacted in 1996, but it was invalidated when a court ruled the bill dealt with too many unrelated subjects.

Such acts introduced in several legislatures, including Wyoming, never came up for full votes before lawmakers ended their sessions.

Wyoming Rep. Rodney "Pete" Anderson, a Republican from Pine Bluffs, said his bill was not a priority. He didn't rule out the possibility of bringing it back.

"I don't have animosity toward gay couples, I just don't think we should offer them the same benefits," Anderson said.

Seitz' bill in Ohio not only would ban same-sex couples from having a marriage status, but also would allow marriage benefits to be afforded only to married couples.

"It would make Ohio one of the most unfriendly states certainly to same-sex couples but also to all unmarried couples," said Seth Kilbourn, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based gay-rights organization. "It creates a very narrow definition of the word family."

The Ohio House overwhelmingly passed the measure in October. The bill goes to the Senate, which likely will not take it up until next year.

Opponents say the legislation is not needed in Ohio because the state's constitution already clearly defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

"This bill is redundant, unnecessary and simply discrimination," said Jeff Redfield, co-chairman of the national Federation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Statewide Advocacy Organizations.

For couples such as Karen Anders, 43, and Dorrie Mills, 40, such laws are disappointing.

The Columbus couple, co-founders of Ohio Freedom to Marry, went to Vermont on the first day civil unions were permitted and became the first pair from Ohio to be granted such a union, they said.

"Now that we know what it feels like to be married, it's awesome, and to leave the state of Vermont and magically lose those rights was startling," Anders said. "We did hold out hope in our heart that our home state would honor our commitment, but that hasn't been the case."

The two, who have been partners for more than four years, say they have discussed moving but will not because they consider Ohio home.

In the year and a half that couples such as Anders and Mills have received civil unions in Vermont, efforts to get lawmakers to enact Defense of Marriage Acts have become even more aggressive, said Janet LaRue, senior director of legal studies at the conservative Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council.

Most states passed their measures when Congress passed the federal act in 1996.

LaRue said states that did not ride the coattails of the federal legislation "are beginning to see that this is not some theory. We soon might find a court in the United States declaring that the state must recognize a same-sex union."

Gay couples in Massachusetts and Georgia already have filed lawsuits seeking to have their unions recognized.

Supporters say courts would be less likely to force a state to recognize a same-sex marriages if a state's constitution explicitly states such unions performed elsewhere are not legally recognized.

"We're building a case now for a court challenge later," said Gregory Quinlan, founder of the conservative Dayton-based Pro-Family Network. "If we don't pass this legislation, potentially all states -- including Ohio -- would have to honor same-sex marriages performed in Vermont."

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)