Marriage developments in New Mexico, Ohio
by Lisa Keen
There were two significant developments in the same-sex marriage arena last week: in one, gay couples in yet another state have the option of getting married; in another, a state's ban on gay marriage has been stopped from destroying laws meant to help end domestic violence but it may have made the possibility of civil unions more difficult.
The first involves New Mexico, but happened in Massachusetts. In a surprise move, a state agency in Massachusetts quietly announced it will issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples from New Mexico.
According to Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which sought the declaration, the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics issued a "corrective notice" to Massachusetts' city and town clerks, instructing them that New Mexico's laws do not prohibit marriage between parties of the same gender.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled last year that gay couples from states which explicitly bar same-sex marriage cannot go to Massachusetts for a marriage license. So far, the only couples which have been able to take advantage of that ruling have been those in Rhode Island and those in New York state who obtained marriage licenses in Massachusetts before the New York supreme court ruled that state could bar recognition of same-sex marriages. But in none of these cases has any ruling guaranteed that marriage licenses obtained in Massachusetts would be recognized in other states.
That same distinction holds true for New Mexico gay couples, and Alexis Blizman, head of the statewide gay political group Equality New Mexico, said there has not been a lot of reaction by gay couples in New Mexico. A group that has sought a constitutional ban in New Mexico has vowed to try for it again next year, said Blizman, but the state legislative session is but one month long next year and the House and Senate are controlled by Democrats.
"We would hope," said Blizman, "that the Democrats wouldn't want this on the ballot in 2008."
Meanwhile, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled July 25 that the existence of a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage in that state does not preclude the enforcement of a state law that prohibits domestic violence between unmarried partners.
The case, State v. Carswell, involved an unmarried heterosexual couple. A state trial court dismissed charges against a man accused of attacking a woman with whom he was living, noting that the domestic violence law violated the constitutional amendment. The Ohio Marriage Amendment stated, "Only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this state. ..." But the state domestic violence law prohibits violence against a "family or household member," and defines those terms to include a spouse or person "living as a spouse."
The court said that recognition of a person living as a spouse for the purposes of the domestic violence law does not provide such persons with any of the rights or benefits of marriage.
One justice dissented, saying that providing recognition to an unmarried partner under the domestic violence law in itself provides "a legal status" to that unmarried partner.
"The crime of domestic violence," wrote Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, "occurs within an intimate relationship and is distinct from the crime of assault. ... The General Assembly's classification of 'person living as a spouse' is a recognition by law of the relationship of unmarried and cohabiting individuals based solely on the similarity of that relationship to marriage."
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund submitted a brief in the case to argue that the Marriage Amendment should not be interpreted to undermine the domestic violence law, as did Equality Ohio, a statewide LGBT organization.
But Equality Ohio said the specifics of the decision actually harmed gays in the state.
Lynne Bowman, executive director of the group, noted that the majority defined the Marriage Amendment's language referring to the ban on "legal status similar to marriage" and including civil unions.
By specifically listing "'civil union' as an example," said Bowman, "the court has made life even harder for same-sex couples trying to care for each other and their children in Ohio."