After seven years of debate, lawmakers moved closer Wednesday to passing a law that would bar Ohio from recognizing same-sex marriages and keep some state employees from getting benefits for their domestic partners. A senate committee approved the measure Wednesday morning, and it was likely to go before the full senate as early as Wednesday afternoon. If a version that passed the house last month is not amended, the legislation would go to Gov. Bob Taft, who has indicated he supports it.
The bill, considered one of the most far-reaching in the nation, puts into law that same-sex marriages would be "against the strong public policy of the state." That language is necessary because of a 1934 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires states to recognize marriages from other states in most circumstances. Ohio may become only the second state, besides Nebraska, that would prohibit benefits for state employees' unmarried partners, said lawyer Michael Adams of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The Ohio legislature has struggled with the issue since then-representative Jay Hottinger introduced a bill in the house seven years ago. Similar bills have been introduced in each legislative session since then, but former senate president Richard Finan, a Republican, blocked its passage. He said state law already took care of the matter. After Finan left the senate in 2003 because of term limits, Republican representative Bill Seitz sponsored the current bill and told the committee that the court ruling in Massachusetts declaring the state's gay marriage ban unconstitutional could affect Ohio. "My concern is the cost of the courts' rewriting statutes in ways we did not intend," Seitz told the committee.
Although the bill would prohibit unmarried partners of state employees from receiving benefits that married partners have access to, it would allow exceptions, including employees who gain such rights in negotiating under collective bargaining, he said. It would not apply to local governments or private companies. Adams said the legislation is not needed and places burdens on the partners of gay men and lesbians that are not found in other states that have banned same-sex marriages. "There is no evidence that any couples besides man-woman couples are trying to get married. It seems to be unnecessary," Adams said. Seitz denied that the bill targets gays and lesbians. "All unmarried people--gay or straight--are treated the same under this bill," Seitz said.
Sen. Eric Fingerhut, the ranking Democrat on the committee, questioned the need to push the bill through the senate in two days, but Republican senate president Doug White said he is moving the bill because it has been debated for years and the legislature has other things to do. "With the limited number of [session] dates we have, we could continue to beat this issue around, but basically its form and function are sound, and we're moving with it," White said. Taft has said he will sign the bill as long as it does not stop private companies from offering domestic-partner benefits. His spokesman said Tuesday that Taft will do a legal review of the bill before making a final decision. Attorney General Jim Petro said he opposes the bill. "I don't think it should be against the strong public policy of the state to
show respect and a little bit of tolerance for all people, and that may include people who make a strong commitment to one another and who happen to be of the same gender," Petro, a Republican planning a run for governor in 2006, told The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer.