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Marriage issue still in question



Published: Sat, February 12, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



A judge won't rule on new amendment's impact in domestic violence case.

CLEVELAND (AP) -- A judge said Friday he won't decide whether Ohio's recently enacted constitutional amendment banning gay marriage makes the state's 25-year-old domestic violence law unconstitutional.

Darnell Forte, a 30-year-old Cleveland man accused of slapping his live-in girlfriend, had asked the judge to throw out a domestic violence charge, saying such a charge should be reserved for married couples under the amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Stuart Friedman denied Forte's request, because the domestic violence charge was filed in August, before Ohio's marriage amendment passed in November with 62 percent of the vote. Friedman also said his court is usually not the place where constitutional cases are determined.

The ruling was widely anticipated as a possible precedent for similar cases and watched closely by gay rights advocates who hope a problem with the amendment will be exposed.

Friedman said in his ruling that Forte's motion drew wide public interest due to "the peculiar nature of the defendant's motion to dismiss."

Gay marriage ban

Seventeen states have constitutional language defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Ohio's is regarded as the broadest marriage amendment of those passed by 11 states in November because it bans civil unions and legal status to all unmarried couples in addition to gay marriages.

Ohio's domestic violence law is not limited to married people.

"We don't think Ohio voters intended to enact a domestic abuser loophole into the Constitution," Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Meyer said. "The defendant is going to be prosecuted."

Gay rights groups campaigned against the marriage amendment, saying it could unintentionally harm unmarried people's rights or benefits such as inheritances, hospital visitation and property ownership.

"Domestic violence happens more than any of us will want to admit, and I'm sure this will come up again," said Sue Doerfer, executive director of the Lesbian-Gay Community Center of Cleveland. She said her organization is hoping that the Ohio marriage amendment will be challenged.

"Judges are going to have to make a decision. It would be our hope that eventually the amendment would be found unconstitutional," she said.

ACLU

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a court brief in support of continuing to apply the domestic violence law to unmarried couples.

"We still don't have a definitive ruling by a judge in Ohio as to whether the amendment has any affect beyond marriage, whether it has an influence on any Ohio laws," said Carrie Davis, Ohio ACLU staff attorney.

Nancy Neylon, executive director of Ohio Domestic Violence Network, said uncertainty remains concerning the state law.

"I think domestic violence cases of unmarried partners, whether criminal or civil, will continue to be challenged across the state," Neylon said.

Neylon's group says the domestic violence law helps victims get quick protective orders that may not be possible if a person is charged with assault.

At least 11 similar requests have been made on behalf of people charged with domestic violence in the Cleveland area.

The public defender's staff in Cuyahoga County will keep raising similar motions in other cases, said David Magee, a public defender representing Forte.

"Whether it's in this case or another case, hopefully we will be successful in the future," Magee said.




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