[By the Fort Mill Times Editorial Board]
South Carolina might be a little more progressive than it appears after the last few election cycles.
Well, York County, anyway.
Two local court cases this month – one in criminal court and the other in family court – are the first in the state to set precedents regarding same-sex couples since the U.S. Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land by striking down laws or parts of laws that defined a legally married couple as one man and one woman. In the first case, a judge ruled same-sex couples married under state law, or “common law,” meaning they never obtained a marriage license, have rights to alimony and property following a dissolution. The next case involved a Fort Mill man who was convicted of domestic violence against his husband.
Legal experts say the two rulings show courts are having to correct past discrimination against gay people.
In the latter case, the precedent should have a lasting effect on the criminal justice system and victims’ rights. It means some people convicted of violent crimes against a spouse or partner likely face stricter penalties. The difference between a domestic abuse conviction and one for a lower assault charge is the potential for more jail or probation time and subsequent punishment. In South Carolina, residents convicted of domestic violence are barred for years from owning guns or ammunition, and face stiffer penalties for subsequent offenses.
It is dismaying to think of the number of abusers who faced little or no punishment because they were part of a same-sex relationship.
The ruling in the dissolution of the common law marriage, one in which the couple had been together for decades, makes those cases what they should have been all along – unremarkable. Just as a judge is often called on to decide how to sort out the end of a relationship between straight couples considered married despite the lack of a license, as in division of property and assets and custodianship of minor children, now they will do the same for gay couples ending a common law marriage.
That is welcome progress, but not the end of the story. The state law defining household members for domestic violence does not recognize gay couples in a common law marriage. That means there are still too many people who may commit violence against a partner and not face the most serious charges, and a class of citizens without the legal protection they deserve.
That must change.