Equality advocates prepared to defend registry

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Equality advocates are uncertain whether Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will continue to mount a legal defense of the state’s domestic partner registry. But they’ve taken steps to ensure the registry is represented in court, regardless of the governor’s decision.

In December, Fair Wisconsin won legal standing for the group – along with five same-sex couples – to intervene in the case. Lambda Legal will represent the group in a suit that’s pending in Dane County Circuit Court.

“To be accepted as an intervening party is the highest level of involvement you can have as an outside party,” said Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger. “So we are one of the lead defendants, and we get to participate in the defense.”

Wisconsin Family Action, an anti-gay evangelical Christian organization, filed the lawsuit against the registry last year, charging that it is unconstitutional because it mirrors marriage, which is forbidden by a 2006 voter-approved amendment to the state constitution.

Equality proponents argue that the registry is not “substantially similar” to marriage, as prohibited by the amendment. The registry confers only 41 of the more than 200 benefits provided by marriage in the state and none of the 1,138 benefits and responsibilities available to married couples from the federal government.

When WFA initially filed suit, Republican Attorney General J.B. Von Hollen declined to defend the registry in court, saying he agreed that it is unconstitutional. Gov. Jim Doyle hired an independent legal team, headed by Madison attorney Lester Pines, to represent the law that he’d introduced.

“Gov. Doyle worked tirelessly to defend the domestic partner registry,” Belanger said. “Now that Walker is governor, will he continue to take on that responsibility? We’re taking a wait-and-see approach.”

In the meantime, Belanger said her group’s legal standing in the case gives it the ability to intervene if Walker decides to opt out of the case.

“The registry will be defended to the fullest extent with us at the helm,” Belanger said.

She anticipates a decision in the suit no sooner than mid-year. It’s likely the decision will be appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.