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LGBTQ+ Ohioans anxious as same-sex marriage bill passes Senate

Congress Marriage Rights
Posted at 6:29 PM, Nov 30, 2022

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A bill to protect marriage equality passed the U.S. Senate Tuesday evening, but LGBTQ+ Ohioans are worried the legislation doesn't do enough, especially with the added exceptions.

The Respect for Marriage Act would make sure that every legal marriage would be considered legitimate and would prohibit any state from discriminating against same-sex couples married in other states.

The bill would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which only recognized marriages between one man and one woman, denying gay couples federal benefits.

Rick Neal fought for his equality.

"We had a big church wedding and it was terrific," Neal said.

Neal and his husband fell in love in the early 2000s and decided to tie the knot in Columbus, Ohio.

"The footnote to it was it wasn't recognized by the state of Ohio or by the United States for that matter," he added.

It was 2007, nearly a decade before the United States Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples have the fundamental right to marry. This federal law from the 1990s was struck down after the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. The court ruled that same-sex couples in the U.S. have the same right to marry as different-sex couples.

Neal fears the current Supreme Court would put up the same roadblocks he had to face nearly two decades ago for younger queer people like Mallory Golski.

"I did have this moment of like, 'oh, shoot, should I be worried?'" Golski, who works in advocacy for LGBTQ+ youth, asked. "This right could go away. It adds another level of urgency that most people don't have to consider."

She is 25 and has been with her girlfriend for about three years. Obergefell was decided when she was just out of high school, making same-sex marriage a legal right her entire adult life so far.

"I think for me, the other point of privilege is I don't feel that sense of urgency of, 'I have to get married right now because you never know if that right could go away,'" she added.

This is why both she and Neal are calling U.S. Senator Rob Portman’s Respect for Marriage Act a win. The bill, which has now passed the Senate and returns to the House for an easy vote, would make sure every legal marriage would be considered legitimate, including same-sex and interracial couples married in other states.

RELATED: Sen. Rob Portman cosponsors marriage equality act, Ohio GOP splits on issue

The House proposed this legislation amid concern other rights may be in jeopardy after SCOTUS overturned Roe v. Wade, ending protections for abortion.

"Well, it's a really simple bill, it just gives certainty to people who are married," The Republican from Ohio told News 5.

If a couple is moving from one state to another, they wouldn't have their marriage annulled, he added. That could cause real issues with regard to your financial situation and adoptions, he added.

Neal has two daughters, one adopted in 2009 and the other in 2011, and this would have changed his world, he said.

"In both cases, the adoption agency was extremely clear with us that only one of us was adopting, we were not adopting as a couple because that was not allowed, because we were not in a legally recognized marriage," he added. "We were in a position to be able to, sort of, cobble together legal protections for me and the girls, setting up custody agreements, for example, between me and the girls so that I had legal rights — far from ideal."

Rick Neal with his family and Jim Obergefell
Rick Neal with his family and Jim Obergefell (center)

Portman had previously told News 5 that he was trying to win support from his fellow GOP colleagues – so in came the compromise.

RELATED: Ohio's Sen. Rob Portman worries Senate doesn't have the votes for marriage equality act

"We add to that religious liberty protections saying basically that nobody's tax-exempt status can be challenged because of this, that people do not have to perform weddings that they don't feel it's consistent with their religious beliefs," he added.

If Obergefell would be overturned now, states like Ohio would not have the right to same-sex marriage. Portman’s bill would make sure current legal protections still exist, but wouldn’t require all states to allow for marriage equality moving forward.

"I think the watered-down version is absolutely a concern because it still creates the divide between what's legal in some states," Golski said.

Overturning marriage equality and sending it back to the states could end up just like abortion, she said. If states get to decide who is able to get married, only people able to afford to go out of state can get benefits.

"Those who have the privilege to travel to another state where marriage is legal, they'll be able to have that marriage license, whereas those who are in a place where they can't — younger people, especially, who might not have the funds to be able to do that — they won't have that."

For Neal, the religious exceptions are just an excuse to deny people freedom, while also not looking discriminatory.

"This new law does seem to continue in that tradition of making sure that everybody knows that we're not coming after your churches or whatever," Neal said. "Don't worry — they were never under threat to begin with."

The House

Neal spoke as a private citizen to News 5, but he did run in 2018 to become U.S. Representative for Ohio’s 15th Congressional District, which is in Columbus. Currently, that seat is held by GOP Rep. Mike Carey, who did vote in support of the original Respect for Marriage Act.

In addition to each Ohio Democrat, Republican Reps. Anthony Gonzalez, from Rocky River; Dave Joyce, from Chagrin Falls; Michael Turner, from Dayton; all joined Carey in voting yes.

News 5 reached out to the GOP lawmakers who opposed the bill via email and phone call to ask if the exception changed their mind or if they will still vote no, but did not get a single response.

“It's great that Congress is passing this law, the Respect for Marriage Act, and that the president is going to sign it,” Neal said. “It's a shame that we have to deal with the reality that civil rights and human rights are legislated.”

House leaders have said this will be voted on in the near future. President Biden has already released a statement, saying he is ready to sign it once it gets to his desk.

Ohio

If Obergefell was to fall, would Ohio state lawmakers protect marriage equality? Golski doesn't think so.

"Blatantly, I don't think there's the appetite to do that," she said. "The Fairness Act has been introduced year after year after year and still there's no movement on that."

Ohio is one of the nearly 30 states with no LGBT non-discrimination protections, according to data collected by Freedom for All Americans. This means it is technically legal in most parts of the state to discriminate against someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.

The Ohio Fairness Act is not new. It has been introduced every General Assembly for at least 20 years, making this time the 10th attempt — six of the 10 are from state Sen. Nickie Antonio, a Democrat from Lakewood who is also the only open member of the LGBTQ+ community.

RELATED: Bipartisan group of Ohio lawmakers attempt to make LGBTQ discrimination illegal

Ohio has never passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage, but it would be hard to use data from pre-Obergefell as a time capsule due to how quickly the approval rate has switched. Seventy-percent of Americans supported marriage equality, according to a 2021 Gallup poll.

In 2014, a Gallop poll found that 55% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. Compare that to 1988, when the University of Chicago reported that only about 11% were in favor.

"I think it's possible that marriage equality could be codified, but it would stop there," Golski added. "I definitely think that there's more of an appetite at the Statehouse to work against LGBTQ Ohioans versus working to support them."

Bills that the ACLU of Ohio, Equality Ohio and Golski all deem as discriminatory towards the LGBTQ+ community have been extensively reported by News 5. Click or tap here to find them at the bottom of the page.

This was the third win the queer community has received in a mountain of hate, Golski and Neal said. First, the State Board of Education delayed a vote on a resolution that would oppose protections for the LGBTQ+ community. Then Ohio Republicans stopped their own bill from moving forward for this General Assembly, one that would severely limit healthcare for LGBTQ+ youth. Now, advocates say they have the marriage equality bill — even if it is just a small step.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.