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June 30, 2006

Partner benefits become an issue in governor's race

Cincinnati--Anti-gay sentiment, domestic partner benefits and Ohio�s constitutional amendment against gay marriage are creeping into the gubernatorial race, prompting early accusations of using the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community �for cheap political gain.�

A candidates and issues feature by the Cincinnati Enquirer has led to conflating same-sex couples with other campaign issues, terse statements and accusations.

The question was: �Should live-in partners of state employees receive the same health and pension benefits as married state employees?�

It was third in a series called �The Choice,� where questions are submitted to the candidates in writing and they are asked to respond yes or no, followed by a one to three sentence explanation. Earlier questions dealt with abortion and sending National Guard troops to border states.

The June 22 question followed an editorial paragraph saying, �Ohio does not offer health benefits to �significant others,� including unmarried partners of state employees. In fact, Issue 1--the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage approved in 2004--prohibits such benefits.�

Republican candidate Ken Blackwell responded, �No. Government has no obligation to provide benefits established for married couples to �live-in� couples. I believe those seeking the benefits of marriage should get married.�

Green Party candidate Bob Fitrakis said, �Yes. I believe in universal health care for all Americans. Every other democracy in the world provides universal health care. I believe the state of Ohio should take the lead and extend benefits not only to live-in partners, but all live-in relatives.�

Libertarian candidate Bill Pierce replied, �Yes. Those benefits should be zero for both groups of people. The fundamental principle is that a person�s pay should be based on the work that a person does, not on family status.�

Democrat Ted Strickland returned, �No. My understanding is that the state�s newest constitutional amendment would prevent the state from taking such action.�

The Ohio Republican Party immediately sent out a press release titled, �Strickland Not Straight About Position on Domestic Partner Benefits.�

Citing the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a source, the state GOP said, �Strickland�s doublespeak on support for gay rights comes on the heels of a major fundraiser �sponsored by the Stonewall Democrats of Central Ohio and several other gay advocacy groups.� �

That event was held June 19.

�Ted Strickland can�t even go a week without contradicting himself,� said Ohio Republican Party Chair Bob Bennett.

Pointing to Strickland�s 2001 congressional vote against a resolution banning domestic partner benefits for public employees of the District of Columbia, the Republicans called the answer a �new position� that �contradicts his earlier support of government funded benefits for gay couples.�

However, Strickland campaign spokesperson Keith Dailey said it is not a new position, but one that simply reflects the candidate�s understanding of what the constitutional amendment does.

�The real issue is that the Republicans don�t want to talk about important issues like education and the economy, so they want to deflect people away from those real issues,� Dailey shot back.

Dailey took issue with the way the question was set up and asked, adding, �The people of Ohio decided in 2004 to amend the constitution. If elected, it is [Strickland�s] duty to uphold the constitution.�

According to Dailey, Strickland is not familiar with the cases in Ohio courts on how the amendment affects domestic violence laws, parenting rights, and domestic partner benefits at public universities, all of which will help ultimately determine what its second sentence means.

The second sentence reads, �The state and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage.�

Some of Ohio�s lower courts have followed the recommendation of the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal and other LGBT advocacy groups, ruling that only marriage approximates marriage, and adopting a narrow legal interpretation of the amendment.

Others have followed the recommendation of the anti-gay Citizens for Community Values in adopting a broad interpretation of the amendment to mean an array of rights and benefits, including domestic partner health coverage.

None of the cases have yet reached the Ohio Supreme Court, where all agree the matter will be settled.

Of Ohio�s five universities offering the benefits, none have stopped, nor have they been directed to by Ohio�s Republican attorney general Jim Petro. These include Miami University, whose benefits are being challenged in a lawsuit.

The Equality Ohio Campaign Fund has endorsed Strickland and his running mate Lee Fisher for governor, as have the Stonewall Democrats of Cleveland and Central Ohio.

Strickland stood with Equality Ohio at a demonstration across from the Ohio Statehouse in October opposing a megachurch minister�s anti-gay rally featuring his opponent Blackwell.

Strickland opposed the Ohio constitutional amendment and supports some recognition of same sex couples, though he has never outright supported marriage.

When asked about the proposed federal constitutional marriage ban amendment, which he voted against, Strickland, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, told Copley News, �I absolutely believe that adults should be able to enter into legal relationships which give them legal rights and privileges that are usually associated with the marriage relationship.�

Equality Ohio protested the Ohio GOP�s statements.

�Ohioans are wise to this scheme,� said spokesperson Bo Shuff. �It�s no longer fashionable to use the LGBT community for cheap political gain.�

�Equality Ohio welcomes thoughtful discussion about the challenges Ohioans face every day like access to health coverage. However,� said Shuff, �we are very disappointed in the manner the Ohio Republican Party chose to frame their press release on the issue.�

Equality Ohio has collected about 3,000 signatures on petitions asking the candidates to refrain from using the LGBT community as a ploy to win votes.

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