Wisconsin domestic partnerships begin, as does legal challenge

Monday marked the first day same-sex couples in Wisconsin could sign up as part of the state’s new domestic partnership registry. The registry affords gay and lesbian couples some of the same benefits as heterosexual couples, most notably hospital visitations and the ability to make end-of-life decisions. A companion piece of legislation also extends health insurance benefits to the same-sex partners of state employees. The law is a first in two key areas. It makes Wisconsin the first Midwestern state to recognize domestic partnerships and it is the first state nationally to recognize domestic partnerships which already has a voter-approved constitutional ban on gay marriage. Both of those facts rankle Julaine Appling. Appling is the president of Wisconsin Family Action, a public policy group which supports traditional marriage. With the help of the conservative legal advocacy organization Alliance Defense Fund, Wisconsin Family Action has filed a petition at the state Supreme Court to have the laws struck down. The court is currently out of session and ultimately must decide whether or not the issue presented is significant enough to consider. If the court rejects the petition, Appling said a more traditional route through trial and appellate courts might be attempted. “We expect to hear something in the next several months, but it is hard to predict what a state Supreme Court will do, as Iowa and Massachusetts showed in vivid colors,” Appling said. Iowa, Wisconsin’s neighbor to the south, and Massachusetts both legalized gay marriage through court decisions. Gay marriage became legal in Iowa in April. Massachusetts was the first state to allow gay marriage five years ago. Fifty-eight percent of Wisconsin voters backed the constitutional amendment in 2006, and Appling contends Gov. Jim Doyle bypassed voters’ wishes by including the registry in the state budget bill. “We brought the lawsuit to defend will people expressed in November 2006, defend the constitution of Wisconsin and to defend the institution of marriage,” Appling said. “It’s reprehensible that elected officials passed this law with express disregard for the will of people. To get this passed like this without a separate hearing in the Assembly and the Senate and a full floor debate and to bury it a voluminous budget when most people didn’t even realize it was there is unacceptable. “The governor can’t escape without impunity and he needs to be called out on the carpet.” She added that she felt slipping the registry into the budget was, “a reward to the governor’s cronies.” But how many Wisconsinites will take advantage of the registry? In Milwaukee County, the state’s most populous, county clerk Joe Czarnezki said only 20 homosexual couples registered Monday and nine registered Tuesday. “We really didn’t know what expect (on Monday),” Czarnezki said. “We were prepared for a lot of people but it really wasn’t that busy. We issued 31 marriage licenses at the same time and that was pretty typical for a Monday. I would probably expect the numbers to fall off to just a few people every day.” The state capital, Madison, is in Dane County. It’s the home to the University of Wisconsin’s main campus and is widely viewed as one of the most socially liberal cities in the Midwest. According to the Capital Times, there are between 1,400 and 2,400 gay couples in the county. Tuesday afternoon the Dane County Clerk’s Office reported 29 registry filings Monday and just nine on Tuesday. The turnout is irrelevant to Appling. “We brought the lawsuit on the principle that this is an egregious abuse of power by elected officials with complete disregard for the will of the people,” she said. “The number of people is immaterial. It could be thousands or none.” She also objects based on her Christian outlook. “God’s plan on marriage has an opening and a closing with a man and woman,” she said. “He has planned the purposes of marriage and pictures that to us in His relationship with his beloved bride, the church. “It is a special unique relationship for the good of God and for men, women and children. Marriage is not just about a relationship between two adults. It’s about the next generation and handing down family lines. The amendment was overwhelmingly supported. We are proud to champion God’s plan for marriage. The will of the people, the constitution and the institution of marriage all must be defended.” The tie-in to a faith perspective is much different for Katie Belanger. She is the executive director of Fair Wisconsin, which advocates in favor of gay and lesbian rights across the political and social spectrums. “We absolutely have ties into the faith communities around the state that were used both during amendment battle and also during the domestic partnership legislative work,” she said. “When we talk to leaders from a variety of state organizations, they all agree that trying to treat same-sex couples fairly and decently. Allowing couples to take care of one another is something we can all agree on.” Belanger said Fair Wisconsin had volunteers in Milwaukee and Dane counties on Monday to help with the registration if needed. “The couples we’ve been in contact with are excited,” she said. “It is very limited state protection, but they are hopeful to have some of the most basic protections if they need to take care of one another.” Belanger said Fair Wisconsin, too, is waiting to see what the state Supreme Court will decide. She said she feels majority opinion is on their side of the domestic partnership issue despite the constitutional amendment. “We have talked with the legislature for months prior to this being voted on and three-fourths of the people we talked to see this as a very common sense approach to get behind,” she said. “It’s a fair and decent thing that the government doesn’t stand in the way of couples visiting each other in the hospital.” She also disputed Appling’s claim that the registry and extension of state employee benefits were slipped into the budget legislation as a political reward. “Both pieces of legislation have a fiscal impact that makes it appropriate to be addressed in a state budget,” she said. “When you talk about state employee health care, that obviously is a major statewide fiscal impact. With the registry there is a fiscal impact on counties collecting a fee for local revenues.” A major push to overturn the amendment isn’t likely, Belanger added. She said two consecutive legislative sessions would need to approve rescinding the amendment before it could go to a statewide referendum. That leaves the best option for gay marriage itself being Iowa, which also has its pitfalls. “I think Iowa being next door approving equal marriage was a really major deal for people in Wisconsin,” she said. “This is no longer just on the coasts. (Iowans) are people with the same values and background as we have, and it’s really amazing see Iowa take that step. It highlights the need for Wisconsin to take the steps it is, as limited as they may be. “As far as people from Wisconsin going to Iowa to get married, it’s not necessarily something we would be encouraging. Our state statutes prohibit violating our marriage laws.” Links: Wisconsin Family Action: http://www.wisconsinfamilyaction.org/index.html Fair Wisconsin: http://www.fairwisconsin.com/about/contact.html

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