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Court rulings may bolster gay marriage campaign in Ohio

Plenty of questions remain about impact of decisions

While Ohio gay rights advocates cheered the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on Wednesday, the legal impact of those rulings on same sex couples in the Buckeye state is anything but clear, experts say.

“Striking down (the federal Defense of Marriage Act) is a huge victory. In the same breath, we know we still have our work to do in Ohio,” said Elyzabeth Holford, executive director of Equality Ohio, a statewide gay rights group. “The decision itself on the Windsor case does not repeal or replace our marriage inequality amendment or our statewide DOMA.”

And it’s unclear whether same-sex couples legally married elsewhere but now living in Ohio will be allowed to file joint federal tax returns, she said. Even though the two decisions were extensive, many questions remain unanswered.

State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who was the original sponsor of Ohio DOMA, said the rulings will have no impact on Ohio’s law or constitution.

Holford said the ruling was “truly massive and at the same time it’s complex.”

“I think we’re going to see anything from executive orders to court cases to a combination thereof (to help clarify the ramifications.) I think that either way, whatever happens many things will be changing fairly quickly around the country.”

The group FreedomOhio has collected hundreds of thousands of voter signatures to put a constitutional amendment permitting gay marriage before Ohio voters. FreedomOhio needs 385,245 valid signatures but the group’s co-founder Ian James aims to submit more than 700,000 signatures next summer to qualify for the November 2014 ballot.

A state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage passed with 62 percent of the vote in 2004, shortly after Ohio lawmakers adopted a state law defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

The proposed Freedom to Marry amendment Ohio voters may consider reads, “marriage shall be a union of two consenting adults not nearer of kin than second cousins, and not having a husband or wife living, and no religious institution shall be required to perform or recognize a marriage.”

A March Saperstein Poll for The Columbus Dispatch showed that 54 percent of Ohioans back the Freedom to Marry amendment, but other surveys show as few as 41 percent of Ohioans favor same-sex marriage.

James has had difficulty getting endorsement from other gay marriage advocates, including Equality Ohio and the Human Rights Campaign.

Even after the Supreme Court decisions, Holford is reluctant to jump on board for a 2014 ballot issue. “The decisions don’t change the fact that it needs to be a data driven analysis of when we go. But the court decisions may change the data… If there is a quick uplift, we’ll go when the time is right and when the polling shows we can win,” Holford said.

Gov. John Kasich said he has yet to study the court decisions. “As I think you all know, I believe in the traditional sense of marriage and that’s what I believe,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, who is Kasich’s likely opponent in the governor’s race next year, applauded the decisions and called it “simply and unequivocally a great day for our country.”

Ohio State University law professor Marc Spindelman, an expert on gay rights and family law, said the court ruling in Windsor is based on equality rather than on federalism, lending credibility to the idea that it’s more likely to lead to state gay marriage bans to fall. He said the decision “puts a powerful new tool in the hands of advocates” to argue that states defense of marriage acts are unconstitutional.

Former Gov. Bob Taft, who signed Ohio’s DOMA into law, wouldn’t say whether he’d sign such a bill today. Public opinion is shifting on gay marriage, he noted. “I’m giving it a lot of thought. I’m not in a position where I have to take a public position on it,” Taft said.

Staff writer Jackie Borchardt contributed to this report.

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