Domestic violence laws secure


IN A case closely followed around the country, the Ohio Supreme Court navigated sensibly over the shoals between the state s ban on gay marriage and its domestic-violence laws. The court held that the two do not conflict in a ruling that was hailed by both sides in the dispute.

The decision came in a domestic violence case that involved an unmarried couple. A Lebanon, Ohio, man accused of assaulting his live-in girlfriend argued he couldn t be charged with domestic violence because of the state s ban on gay marriage.

The ban, approved by voters as a constitutional amendment in 2004, outlaws same-sex civil unions and here s the key denies legal status to all unmarried couples and gay marriages. It is among the broadest such bans passed by 11 states three years ago.

The plaintiff, Michael Carswell, stressed that Ohio s ban prohibits the state from assigning legal status to unmarried couples. So the section of the domestic violence law under which he was charged was unenforceable, he claimed, because it refers to unmarried individuals living together as a spouse.

Under the marriage amendment, did Mr. Carswell have the legal status to be charged with abusing his girlfriend or not? His case called for one of the first interpretations anywhere of a constitutional gay-marriage ban.

Ohio s high court could have agreed with a Warren County Common Pleas judge, who dismissed the felony charge against Mr. Carswell, or it could have gone with an appeals court decision, which reinstated it. In a 6-1 decision the justices sided with the latter, saying the gay marriage ban does not mean unmarried victims of domestic violence have fewer rights and protections than married victims.

Chief Justice Thomas Moyer said describing people s living arrangements as in living together as a spouse, isn t the same as creating a law approximating marriage, which the gay marriage ban prohibits. The distinction, said Ohio State University law professor Marc Spindelman, indicates the court s willingness to interpret the marriage amendment in a way that s conditioned on reason, not inflamed by passions of traditional morality.

That s certainly a welcome sign. And both advocates for domestic violence victims and the anti-gay marriage group that sided with Mr. Carswell were satisfied. Protecting individuals from domestic violence while protecting the amendment s definition of marriage could both be accomplished.

The lone dissenter was Justice Judy Lanzinger who maintained that her colleagues misinterpreted the amendment and had indeed given unmarried relationships a legal status approximating marriage. She suggested an overriding interest of the court s majority was to save the domestic violence statute from being declared unconstitutional.

We prefer to think the court was more keenly interested in upholding justice for everyone married or unmarried litigants enmeshed in the crime of domestic violence.