As acceptance grows, Ohio gays sit and wait

Gay rights advocates across the country are filing lawsuits in an effort to legalize same-sex marriages, but not those in Ohio.

Despite seven lawsuits in other states, Ohio couples are unlikely to bring a suit because they’re almost certain to lose, said Kim Welter, executive director and a founding member of Equality Toledo, a group which works to end discrimination through education.

She said gay rights advocates are also concerned they’d have more rights taken away if their cases appear in Ohio’s conservative courts.

“We don’t want there to be a court ruling that would make things tougher,” Welter said. “Here in Ohio, what we’ll be trying to do is overturn it with voters – we’re not staking our hopes in the court system.”

Nichole Wicks, central regional media manager for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, also believes public opinion could have the greatest impact.

“In terms of social movements, this one’s fairly young,” she said. “With time comes more acceptance.”

And a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reveals the idea of gay marriage is more acceptable than ever.

In the February 2004 poll, 63 percent of those surveyed opposed same-sex marriages – poll results released last month reveal only 51 percent are currently against its legalization.

But despite the latest numbers, Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values which almost single-handedly engineered Ohio’s gay marriage ban amendment in 2004, believes same-sex marriage will never be legalized in Ohio.

While Welter and Wicks said a change to Ohio’s marriage amendment could be possible after 2008 when new officials are elected to state courts, he disagrees.

“If it could’ve happened, it would’ve happened already,” Burress said, adding if same-sex marriage was legalized then the law couldn’t stop three people from getting married.

But while lawsuits working to reverse the marriage amendment haven’t reached Ohio courts yet, a three-judge panel upheld the second portion of the amendment March 24 when it ruled the state’s domestic violence law couldn’t be applied to unmarried couples. The Ohio Second District Court of Appeals ruled same-sex partners would be affected.

The Ohio amendment currently states that marriage is only recognized if the two people are members of the opposite sex and the state will not recognize the legal status of relationships between unmarried couples.

Lynne Bowman, executive director of Equality Ohio, which is unaffiliated with Equality Toledo, said gay and lesbian victims of domestic violence can’t be fully protected under the amendment.

“We’re letting our abusers get away with it just because they’re not married,” she said.

Burress is less concerned about this issue.

He believes, despite two opposite rulings in Ohio courts, the amendment will at least be re-interpreted to protect victims.

“No one is going to use this excuse to abuse a woman and get away with it,” Burress said, adding one of the cases will have to be sent to the Ohio Supreme Court.

“But this doesn’t mean same-sex marriage will be legalized,” he said. “The only way to change the constitution is by vote of the people.”

Meanwhile, Wicks remains confident the amendment will eventually be adjusted.

“Ohio’s handling it a little bit differently, but as the level of understanding grows, the law will follow,” she said.