Wisconsin Supreme Court upholds domestic partner registry

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Julaine Appling, executive director of the ultra-right Wisconsin Family Action.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court early on July 31 issued its ruling in a dispute over whether the domestic partnership registry violates the state constitutional amendment barring the recognition of same-sex marriage. The state's highest court upheld the law creating the partnership program, which provides limited benefits and securities to gay couples.

There was no dissent in the court's finding, which affirmed a lower court ruling.

In 2006, voters approved a constitutional amendment barring same-sex couples from marrying in the state and barring recognition of same-sex marriages from out of state. The amendment said, "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."

A Democratic campaign to provide some support to same-sex couples resulted in passage of the domestic partner registry, which was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

Julaine Appling, executive director of the ultra-right Wisconsin Family Action, led a legal challenge, alleging that the partnership registry is like marriage and in conflict with the constitutional amendment. The registry provides limited benefits and protections, including hospital visitation and the ability to take a family medical leave to care for a sick or injured partner.

A lower court upheld the partnership registry and the state supreme court has affirmed the ruling in the case.

Justice N. Patrick Crooks wrote the opinion for the court, and noted when voters were considering the amendment that there were assurances from "Amendment proponents that the Amendment simply would not preclude a mechanism for legislative grants of certain rights to same-sex couples."

Lambda Legal defended the domestic partnership registry on behalf of Fair Wisconsin, a statewide LGBT civil rights group, and five couples. Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen refused to defend the law that created the registry.

“We’re thrilled that Wisconsin same-sex couples can keep the limited but very important protections that the domestic partnership registry grants them,” said Christopher Clark, counsel for Lambda, in a news release issued early on July 31. “The statute is clearly constitutional, and the Supreme Court of Wisconsin agreed with us. Gay and lesbian couples in Wisconsin no longer have to fear that the protections they have will be taken away by unnecessary anti-gay legal action."

Clark said, “We also look forward to the day — fast approaching — when Wisconsin will join its neighbors to the south and west and the growing number of states across the country where same-sex couples have the freedom to marry, rendering limited domestic partnership registry unnecessary.  Wisconsin same-sex couples are entitled to the full range of legal protections that only marriage provides."

After the partnership case was argued to the supreme court, a federal court has overturned the constitutional amendment against marriage equality. Oral argument in the appeal in the federal marriage equality case is set for Aug. 26 in Chicago.

“The Wisconsin State Legislature created the domestic partnership registry in accordance with the laws of the state, and we’re glad that we can finally move on from this long and unnecessary battle. We’re happy for the thousands of same-sex couples in Wisconsin that need the domestic partnership registry to protect themselves and their families.” said Katie Belanger, President and CEO of Fair Wisconsin. “Wisconsin’s gay and lesbian couples can now rest a little easier, and we’re thankful for that. We must now continue to focus our attention on securing the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in Wisconsin.”

Appling, in a statement, said, "While we are disappointed that the Wisconsin Supreme Court did not agree with us, what’s important is that marriage remains between one man and one woman in Wisconsin and that even in this ruling, the court recognized that marriage is unique and nothing like relationships formed by same-sex couples."

The supreme court, on July 31, also issued rulings upholding the anti-union Act 10 and the voter ID law.

Walker's office has released a short statement under the headline, "Governor Scott Walker's reforms upheld in all Supreme Court cases." The statement contained statements from the governor on the Act 10 and voter ID law rulings but did not mention the domestic partnership ruling.

See also officials' reactions to today's rulings.

Did you know…

About 2,300 couples have joined Wisconsin's domestic partnership registry over the past five years.

More than 500 same-sex couples married in Wisconsin in just a few days in early June, before a stay was issued in the federal marriage equality case.

Editor's note: This is a developing story.

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