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S.C. Supreme Court hits pause on earlier same-sex domestic violence protection ruling

(Stock graphic/MGN)

South Carolina's highest court is delaying implementation of a ruling that was meant to extend domestic violence protections to partners in same-sex relationships, after both sides said the wording of court's decision mistakenly leaves all unmarried couples less legally protected.

The state Supreme Court on Friday hit pause on its unanimous ruling that the state's domestic violence law violates the equal protection rights of same-sex couples.

"We cannot find a reasonable basis for providing protection to one set of domestic violence victims -- unmarried, cohabitating or formerly cohabitating, opposite-sex couples -- while denying it to others," the justices wrote.

The ruling Wednesday struck down wording that defined "household members" as a spouse, former spouse, people with a child in common, or men and women who are or have lived together. By adding "men and women" to the law, legislators had explicitly excluded unmarried same-sex couples.

The decision was a victory for a gay woman whose request for a court order protecting her from her former fiancée had been denied. But state prosecutors quickly pushed back: Attorney General Alan Wilson's office said the ruling's wording inadvertently removed the authority to charge any unmarried person with beating their partner, regardless of the genders of those involved.

"A stay is sorely needed because of the significant impact that this Court's Opinion may have upon arrests, prosecutions and protection as to domestic violence incidents involving cohabitating couples," prosecutors wrote in their motion asking the court to reconsider. "The fractured ruling here places everyone in limbo."

The woman's attorney, Bakari Sellers, agreed in a letter to the court. Both sides are endorsing a remedy offered by one justice in a concurring opinion: Rather than strike down the phrase about cohabitation, the court could tell judges to apply the existing law to same-sex couples.

"What we don't want to do is embarrass the state of South Carolina and have it devolve down into partisan politics," Sellers said.

Both Sellers and Wilson have expressed concern about waiting for state lawmakers, who don't reconvene until January, to fix the issue. Sellers said conservative lawmakers might get stuck arguing about the morality of same-sex relationships, while Wilson stressed the need for an immediate solution to protect all.

While the court considers Wilson's petition, supported by Sellers, to rehear the case, state Sen. Sandy Senn, a Republican who represents the Charleston area, said Friday that if the court doesn't resolve the problem by December, she'll propose legislation for the next Assembly that would strike from the code any gender-specific references to people living together.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP. Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/ .

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