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Could marriage amendment affect N.C.'s domestic violence law?

As North Carolina residents prepare to vote on Amendment One, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, some opponents of the amendment are stirring up a new controversy by pointing out that the law could remove protections against domestic violence for unmarried couples.

The opponents say the amendment could endanger certain legal protections for all unmarried couples, such as wills, job benefits and custody agreements in addition to domestic violence. Although supporters of the marriage amendment have dismissed this claim as hypothetical, one other state has struggled with inconsistent interpretations of the law in regards to domestic violence cases.

After Ohio passed its marriage amendment in 2004, defense attorneys in that state tried to have their domestic violence cases thrown out because the law meant unmarried couples of the opposite sex were no longer protected. That led to conflicting decisions by judges across the state for 2½ years. The state Supreme Court finally settled the matter by ruling that the marriage amendment and domestic violence laws were not in conflict.

This conflict hasn't happened in any other state with a similar constitutional marriage amendment, but the argument has added to the controversy over North Carolina's Amendment One. To explain how, it helps to divide the marriage amendments in states that have already passed them into three categories:

1. Those that define marriage as between one man and one woman

2. Those that also ban a marriage-like legal status for unmarried couples

3. Those so broad that they don't give any special rights to unmarried couples

North Carolina's proposed amendment falls into the third category, which could mean that any unmarried couple won't be protected by laws against domestic violence. Supporters of Amendment One have ridiculed the idea, but it didn't take long for an attorney in an Ohio domestic violence case to make the argument that since the state's new amendment prohibited recognition of a special legal status for unmarried couples, domestic violence laws couldn't apply.

Whether North Carolina's domestic violence law will be affected by Amendment One remains to be seen, but defense attorneys and other legal experts in this state and others will undoubtedly be watching and taking note.

Source:, "Marriage amendment debate focuses on domestic violence," Craig Jarvis, March 4, 2012

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