S.C.’s gay-marriage ban heading for court?

abeam@thestate.comAugust 18, 2013 

South Carolina’s constitutional ban on gay marriage could be headed to court in the coming years.

SC Equality, the gay-rights advocacy group, has started a volunteer legal team to “explore options” for same-sex couples living in South Carolina now that the U.S. Supreme court has ordered the federal government to treat homosexual couples the same as heterosexual couples. South Carolina is one of the top states in the country where same-sex couples identify themselves as husbands or wives, according to the U.S. Census.

Columbia attorney Malissa Burnette is leading the effort. She says the group is “proceeding very carefully” at first, focusing on individual cases. But the ultimate goal, she said, is to overturn South Carolina’s constitutional ban on gay marriage, which voters approved in 2006.

“I’m very optimistic that it’s been seven, nearly eight years now, and I believe that even in South Carolina, people have become more aware that in their families, in their neighborhoods and in their workplace, there are gay and lesbian people that they see and speak with everyday, and that’s OK,” she said. “People are beginning to accept that more readily than they did in 2006.”

But the Palmetto Family Council has its own legal team ready to counter any effort to overturn the amendment.

Director Oran Smith says he relies on a statewide network of attorneys trained by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national legal group that, according to its website, is devoted to “religious liberty, the sanctity of life and marriage and family.”

Smith said he does not think his group would intervene in specific cases of same-sex couples seeking federal benefits. But it would intervene if “we saw a pattern of the courts not respecting the marriage amendment in South Carolina.”

“We would certainly want to assess whether we would want to become involved on an individual case by case basis,” Smith said. “Hopefully we would not need to do that.”

The 2006 amendment passed with 78 percent of the vote. In December, the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found 62 percent of South Carolina voters said same-sex marriage should not be allowed, while 27 percent said it should be allowed (10 percent were not sure).

According to the U.S. Census, 7,214 same-sex couples live in South Carolina, or 4.01 couples per 1,000 households – ranked 38th in the country. Vermont was the No. 1 state, with 8.36 couples per 1,000 households.

But 22 percent of South Carolina’s same-sex couples identify themselves as husbands or wives, the 16th-highest percentage of the country. Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal, is No. 1 with 44 percent.

Burdette said there are 1,100 places in federal law where a protection or responsibility is based on marital status. She said federal agencies traditionally have deferred to state laws to determine whether a marriage is valid. So if a couple is married in Maryland and they move to South Carolina, Burdette said that is where her legal team could get involved.

“Why should your ZIP code determine your civil rights?” Burdette said. “It’s very disconcerting.”

Smith said his group believes marriage between one man and one woman “is the gold standard for kids.”

“Anything that harms that ability in a family is something we oppose,” he said.

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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