SC court hits pause on same-sex domestic violence ruling

CONWAY, SC. (WBTW, AP) – People in same-sex relationships in South Carolina should get the same legal protections against domestic violence as heterosexual couples, the state’s highest court ruled Wednesday, deeming a portion of the state’s domestic violence law unconstitutional.

The court was asked to weigh in after a woman tried to get a protective order against her former fiancé, also a woman, and was denied.

However, on Friday afternoon South Carolina’s highest court is delaying implementation of the ruling amid criticism from both sides. They argue the decision actually leaves all unmarried couples less protected.

Current law defines “household members” as a spouse, former spouse, people with a child in common, or men and women who are or have lived together. It does not include unmarried same-sex couples.

“In this case, we cannot find a reasonable basis for providing protection to one set of domestic violence victims — unmarried, cohabiting or formerly cohabiting, opposite-sex couples — while denying it to others,” the court wrote.

By getting rid of the part of the law that includes “men and women who are or have lived together” the law mistakenly took away protection for all unmarried couples.

“It is not clear exactly what the court is saying,” explained Solicitor of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, Jimmy Richardson. “What happens is you take out a whole group of people who would have been protected before.”

Richardson said it’s confusing for attorneys and law enforcement.

“Do you continue making domestic violence arrests based upon the male/female cohabitating definition or should they immediately stop using the domestic violence charges in those situations,” he added.

Richardson said many states have changed the last clause to be gender neutral instead of saying “men and women” and expects the South Carolina legislators to do the same.

“This happens all the time,” said Richardson. “You try to make changes as you see best and you look at them the next day and a lot of stuff is affected in a ripple effect you didn’t ever expect.”

State lawmakers do not reconvene until January so it could take a while for the law to be re-written. Richardson said they will continue to prosecute domestic violence cases the same was they did before this ruling.

“As a community and a legal system we need to get this right,” he added.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.