Gay couples marrying in Wisconsin after judge overturns ban

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Jill Winkler, left, and Pamela Dietzler kiss after they were married at the Milwaukee County Courthouse June 6 in Milwaukee. Same-sex couples began getting married in Wisconsin on June 6 shortly after a federal judge struck down the state's gay marriage ban and despite confusion over the effect of the ruling. - PHOTO: AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps

Gay couples on June 6 were lining up at clerk's offices in Dane and Milwaukee counties to get marriage licenses after learning that a federal judge had overturned Wisconsin's anti-gay ban. Dozens of weddings took place in Madison and Milwaukee in the first hours after the ruling became public.

U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb in Madison wrote, "This case is not about whether marriages between same-sex couples are consistent or inconsistent with the teachings of a particular religion, whether such marriages are moral or immoral or whether they are something that should be encouraged or discouraged," Crabb wrote. "It is not even about whether the plaintiffs in this case are as capable as opposite-sex couples of maintaining a committed and loving relationship or raising a family together.

"Quite simply, this case is about liberty and equality, the two cornerstones of the rights protected by the United States Constitution," added Crabb, who did not issue a stay pending a certain appeal from the state.

There was uncertainty among the lawyers involved in the case about whether the order cleared the way for gay couples to marry. But at least two clerks — Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell and Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki — welcomed the judge's decision and said they were prepared to issue marriage licenses, which prompted gay couples in both counties to head to the courthouse.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele vowed to keep open the Milwaukee courthouse after hours for couples who wanted to get licenses.

"I have been waiting decades for this day to finally arrive and we won’t make loving couples wait longer than they want to to get married,” he said in a news release.

By 6 p.m., at least two same-sex couples had married in Dane County. The first couple to marry in Madison was Renee Currie and Shari Roll.

Weddings continued into the evening and were expected to continue to take place on June 7.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Madison, responded to the news: "The federal district court in Madison took another step toward ensuring full equality for every American. It is clear the growing momentum of support for marriage equality will put an end to discriminatory laws that treat LGBT couples as second-class citizens. In ruling after ruling, it has become unmistakable that the promise of America is everyone should be treated equally and with dignity.  Today’s ruling brings us one step closer to fulfilling that promise." Pocan, who is gay, married his husband in 2006.

The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law on behalf of eight couples seeking the freedom to marry in Wisconsin or have their out-of-state marriages recognized.

In Wolf v. Walker, the ACLU, the ACLU of Wisconsin and the law firm of Mayer Brown LLP have argued that Wisconsin’s ban on marriage equality violates the couples’ due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The ACLU had asked for an expedited consideration of the case, which was opposed by Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who recently asked Crabb to stay a decision if she ruled in favor of marriage equality and who on June 6 filed an emergency request for a stay.

Crabb, in her 88-page opinion, said two motions were before the court: a motion to dismiss filed by the state and a motion for summary judgment filed by the plaintiffs, who are either seeking the right to marry in the state or to have the state recognize their marriages.

"I am granting plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and denying defendants' motion to dismiss because I conclude that the Wisconsin laws prohibiting marriage between same-sex couples interfere with plaintiffs' right to marry, in violation of the due process clause, and discriminate against plaintiffs on the basis of sexual orientation, in violation of the equal protection clause," she wrote.

The judge went on to state, "I do not mean to disparage the legislators and citizens who voted in good conscience for the marriage amendment." However, "it is necessary to conclude only that the state may not intrude without adequate justification on certain fundamental decisions made by individuals and that, when the state does impose restrictions on these important matters, it must do so in an even-handed manner."

Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said, "We are tremendously happy that these loving and committed couples will now be able to access the security and recognition that only marriage provides. These discriminatory laws are falling around the country and it is only right that Wisconsin move forward as well."

Wisconsin voters in 2006 approved the anti-gay amendment, which states that "only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state."

"Wisconsin’s constitutional ban on marriage for same-sex couples is a striking example of intentional discrimination towards lesbians and gay men in Wisconsin," said John Knight, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project. "The marriage ban has sent a powerful message that same-sex couples are undeserving of the dignity and important legal protections associated with marriage. Judge Crabb’s decision that same-sex couples are equal under the law sends an entirely different message — one inviting and encouraging fair treatment and respect for these couples."

Recent polls show that Wisconsin voters have flipped on the marriage ban — about 55 percent in the state now support marriage equality.

Same-sex couples can marry in 19 other states and the District of Columbia.

There are about 70 lawsuits pending in state and federal courts challenging anti-gay marriage laws in 30 states, in addition to the challenge in Wisconsin, which is the 12th state to see such an anti-gay ban struck down in federal court since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its marriage rulings last June.

“Where you live should never limit your ability to marry the person you love,” said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin in a news release. “All across the country, from coast to coast and everywhere in between, judges are striking marriage discrimination from the books using the U.S. Constitution as their guide. Because of the couples who brought this case, their attorneys with the ACLU and Mayer Brown LLP, and the hundreds of plaintiffs challenging marriage bans across the country, we as a nation are closer than ever before to full equality under the law.”

The news broke as many in the LGBT community in the Milwaukee area were headed to the Summerfest grounds on the lakefront for the first night of the three-day PrideFest celebration. Abele addressed a cheering crowd at the festival, announcing the extended hours for the clerk's office.

Gov. Scott Walker's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Van Hollen has said the state will challenge the order. The statement from the AG said, "The United States Supreme Court, after a referral from Justice (Sonia) Sotomayor, stayed a lower court's decision striking down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage. There is no reason to believe the Supreme Court would treat Wisconsin's ban any differently."

Mary Burke, Walker's likely Democratic opponent in November, said in a statement, "Today is a great day for Wisconsin and committed couples who love each other across the state. Every loving couple should have the freedom to marry whomever they choose, and the fact that this freedom is now available in Wisconsin is something we all can and should be proud of."