On Feb. 6 Gov. Bob Taft signed into law House Bill 272, widely known as the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA. On that day Taft also issued a press release explaining his support for the legislation and characterizing DOMA as little more than statutory clarification.
"The singular purpose of HB 272 is to reaffirm existing Ohio law with respect to ... marriage," Taft said.
Prior to DOMA, Ohio law defined the pool of those eligible for marriage but didn't clearly state that males in the pool must be matched only with females in the pool. DOMA adds: "A marriage may only be entered into by one man and one woman."
Contrary to Taft's explanation, however, there is much more to this legislation than a minor language refinement. DOMA specifically and purposefully excludes the provision of benefits, such as health care, to state employees' domestic partners. The old law didn't bar domestic partners from receiving such benefits.
Such treatment doesn't constitute discrimination, according to Taft.
"I do not endorse, nor does this law provide for, discrimination against any Ohio citizen," he said.
But it's clear that, by any definition, Taft and state lawmakers have walled off certain individuals from the benefits of marriage, based not on their commitment to each other or preparedness for marriage but solely on their sexual orientation. One would be hard pressed to find a more clear-cut example of discrimination.
Ohioans for Growth and Equality, a lobbying organization dedicated to promoting equality in the state, compiled a list of 110 Ohio laws that bestow benefits on spouses. Most of these benefits are not and cannot be extended to homosexual couples under DOMA, including, among others, the extension of health care, retirement, disability and death benefits through a state employee to a spouse; probate-related rights, such as dower and intestate rights that bestow upon a spouse statutorily-set shares of the deceased's property; the right to not testify in court against a spouse; the right to seek redress for failure to provide child support; and visitation rights in hospitals and state medical and mental facilities.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio says the provision in DOMA declaring that the "recognition or extension by the state of the specific statutory benefits of legal marriage to non-marital relationships is against the public policy of the state" precludes homosexual couples from lobbying politicians with regard to such benefits — thereby denying them equal protection under the law, which is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. A 1996 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court declared that legislation that "identifies persons by a single trait and then denies them protection across the board," leading to "disqualification of a class of persons from the right to seek specific protections from the law" constitutes violation of the equal protection clause. Further supporting the ACLU's position, the attorney general of Nebraska — which has a DOMA structured similar to Ohio's — has stated that his state's law prohibits those in same-sex relationships from lobbying for legal protections.
Yet another impact of DOMA on Ohio's homosexual community is that, contrary to Taft's promises and to the legislation itself, it will adversely impact the ability of local governments to maintain domestic partner registries, which are listings of those wishing to be considered domestic partners under local law. Access to health care benefits, hospital visitation and rights otherwise reserved for married couples within the locality is often based on these registries.
In his explanatory press release, Taft correctly states that the legislation allows local governments to maintain such registries. In hearings on HB 272, the bill's sponsor, State Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Green Township), said that a lawsuit using DOMA to challenge a domestic partner registry would be "frivolous."
But less than two weeks after Taft signed HB 272 into law, it has been used to do just that. Cincinnati attorney David Langdon, one of the original proponents of the DOMA initiative, has filed a lawsuit seeking to dismantle Cleveland Heights' domestic partner registry.
Although 38 states have now enacted DOMAs, the unusual clause precluding the provision of benefits to domestic partners of state employees makes Ohio's law the most repressive. Many have recognized the potentially negative economic consequences of such a divisive law.
"Support of such legislation ... reduces our ability as a state to compete in the global economy," wrote Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman in a letter urging Taft to veto HB 272. "This legislation also threatens Ohio's ability to attract new jobs and businesses, as well as the creative and talented workforce that helps drive economies in the 21st Century. At least one company, Missing Lynx, has already indicated that it will not relocate to Ohio if H.B. 272 becomes law."
In testimony to lawmakers, Dayton-based NCR and Columbus-based Limited Brands opposed the bill due to its potentially negative impact on workforce recruitment and diversification. Editorials and columns in all of Ohio's major daily newspapers, including The Cincinnati Enquirer, expressed similar concerns.
The economics of DOMA are important to all Ohioans, but even without such financial implications the law is hateful, divisive, prejudicial and foolish. There will come a time when Americans will view government bans on gay marriage with the same incredulity most of us now view once-prevalent bans on interracial marriage.