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Published: Wednesday, 3/30/2005

Unintended consequences

IT WAS only a matter of time. The overly broad "gay marriage" ban approved by Ohio voters last fall is undermining the state's domestic violence law as it applies to unmarried couples.

A judge in Cleveland last week reduced a felony conviction under the domestic violence law to misdemeanor assault, saying the constitutional amendment, which took effect Dec. 1, left him no choice.

"By mandating that the state deny any legal recognition 'that intends to approximate the design, significance, or effect of marriage' to relationships between unmarried individuals, the Ohio Constitution now appears to threaten the limited protections previously available to them by law," Judge Stuart Friedman, of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, ruled in the case of a man named Frederick Burk.

Burk, a repeat offender, faced an 18-month jail term under the domestic violence statute; the maximum penalty for felony assault is six months.

Judge Friedman's ruling is being appealed, and it is likely the case will go all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court for a definitive decision.

In the meantime, the tough law that has helped protect both married and unmarried couples living together is in legal limbo.

That's potentially dangerous for a significant number of Ohioans, because an estimated 20 percent of domestic violence cases involve unmarried partners.

Because of the special circumstances involving domestic life, tougher penalties are necessary to protect both women and men, especially in the case of repeat offenders. Moreover, a victim can get a protective order under the domestic violence law that is unavailable if the charge is simple assault.

Unintended consequences like these illustrate the problems with ill-conceived and sloppily drafted ballot measures that increasingly are being foisted upon the public through emotional appeals.

In blindly following the national rush to ban gay marriage, Ohio voters failed to heed reasonable warnings from their elected officials - the governor, attorney general, and both United States senators, all of them Republicans - that Issue 1 was too broadly written.

While the Burk case is on appeal, we can only hope that few innocent victims of domestic violence are harmed as a result.



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