By Chris Kenning
(Reuters) - South Carolina's Supreme Court on Friday put on hold its ruling that people in same-sex relationships should be entitled to the same legal protection against domestic violence as heterosexual couples, after the unmarried were inadvertently excluded.
The court had ruled on Wednesday that the state's domestic violence law violated constitutional rights to equal protection by setting out gender-based designations for household members, defining them as either male or female.
Lawmakers in 1994 had amended the definition of household members under the law from "persons" living together to "male and female."
But both the plaintiffs' lawyers and the state's attorney general later agreed that Wednesday's ruling would effectively exclude unmarried cohabiting couples, regardless of gender.
Friday's stay was issued pending a motion for a hearing but no court dates have been set, said Robert Kittle, a spokesman for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson.
Both sides hope that efforts to iron out the unintended consequences of the ruling, whether by court or legislative action, will ultimately ensure that domestic violence protections apply to same-sex couples, he said.
The ruling on Wednesday had stemmed from a case in which a woman, identified as Jane Doe in the court filings, was denied a protective order against her former fiancée.
The woman's attorney, Bakari Sellers, did not respond to requests for comment on the stay on Friday.
The South Carolina legislature overhauled the state's domestic violence law in 2015 to include harsher penalties for offenders and permanent protection orders, but it left the sex-based designation of "household members" unchanged.
Wednesday's ruling was hailed by gay rights activists as the latest from courts nationwide that have guaranteed equal treatment for same-sex couples since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 that legalized same-sex marriage.
Kittle said the attorney general's office hoped the latest issue could be resolved without waiting for a legislative fix, noting that state lawmakers are not in session until January.
"With South Carolina's high rate of domestic violence, we simply cannot wait on legislative action to rewrite the unconstitutional portion of this law," the attorney general's office said in a statement.
(Reporting by Chris Kenning in Louisville, Ky.; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Matthew Lewis)