Why Wisconsin’s registry law must be preserved

Katie Belanger, Contributing writer

It may not be a high profile marriage case, but to those 2,000-plus same-sex couples who’ve registered in Wisconsin, Appling v. Walker is a case that’s poised to have a tremendous impact on their lives.

Two of those couples joined us at the Wisconsin State Supreme Court for oral arguments in Appling — Kathy Flores and Ann Kendzierski of Appleton and Janice Czyscon and Crystal Hyslop of Madison. They are two of the five couples who joined Fair Wisconsin in defending the domestic partnership registry against Julaine Appling and Wisconsin Family Action’s attempt to have it declared unconstitutional. 

When our opposition filed its lawsuit in 2009, we knew that highlighting the stories of individuals who were impacted by the availability — or lack of — legal protections would be critical in defending the registry. In joining the case, the defending couples have made public some of their most private moments — times when they have been subjected to homophobia and discrimination.

Flores has several serious health issues. In 2009, she was in an Appleton hospital and wanted Kendzierski by her side during a procedure. The nurse told Flores her “friend” would be more comfortable in the waiting room. Flores explained their relationship but the nurse refused to let Kendzierski join her.

Flores successfully advocated for herself, however. She ultimately persuaded the doctor to allow Kendzierski’s presence during the procedure, but the fact that she had to deal with discrimination at such a traumatic time illustrates why the registry is so important.

Czyscon and Hyslop have been together for 33 years. As they plan for their future, the protections the registry provides for hospital visitation, family medical leave and inheritance are critical for them to care for each other. I remember their excitement when we gathered outside the Dane County Clerk’s office at 5 a.m. on Aug. 3, 2009, so they could become the first couple registered in the county. That was when I fully realized the enormity of what domestic partnerships meant for Wisconsin.

It’s true that today, seven years after Wisconsin voters banned marriage equality and civil unions, the conversation about equality is vastly different. Even conservative Justice Michael Gableman made that point during oral arguments. It’s surprising that we are defending such a limited set of legal protections while other states are fighting for full marriage equality.

But before we can move forward, we have to protect our previous victories. We are extremely fortunate to have Lambda Legal representing Fair Wisconsin and our five couples who volunteered to be defendants in this case. Christopher Clark, Lambda Legal’s senior staff attorney, made an impassioned presentation to the Supreme Court, laying out the clear, logical reasons why the registry does not violate our constitutional amendment while also sharing the critical need for same-sex couples to have basic legal protections.

There was a sharp contrast between Clark’s arguments and our opposition’s attempts to strip the most basic protections from same-sex couples.

Justice David Prosser summed up the religious rights’ legal efforts best when he said they were “just rolling the dice.”

Wisconsin has fallen far behind our neighbors and many parts of the country but a victory in the Supreme Court will prevent us from falling farther in terms of progress and equality.

Katie Belanger is the president of Fair Wisconsin.