The administration of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Tea Party Republican and likely 2016 presidential candidate, announced today that it is reversing course and processing the marriage licenses of same-sex couples who've wed in the aftermath of a federal court ruling striking down the state's marriage discrimination amendment.
The state Vital Records Office -- which is part of the Department of Health Services and so falls under the auspices of the governor -- had initially refused to file same-sex couples' marriage licenses. A spokeswoman claimed that the office of Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a far-right Republican who is defending the ban in court, hadn't told Vital Records what to do with the licenses, and that until they received that guidance they would accept the licenses from county clerks but set them aside without registering them.
It wasn't clear why Vital Records initially elected not to process the licenses, since under state law couples are legally married at the moment their officiant says so. Given Walker and Van Hollen's long-standing opposition to marriage equality, though, many observers thought the motivation may have been political.
But today the state did an about-face. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:
"[N]ewlywed same-sex couples in Wisconsin may still need to sort out their legal status depending on what the courts ultimately rule in the lawsuit over the ban, a state official signaled.
"'The Wisconsin Department of Health Services Office of Vital Records will fulfill all administrative duties required with regard to registering vital records. Once there is an ultimate decision made on this issue, the responsibility will be on individuals to make any necessary changes to their record,' Health Services spokeswoman Stephanie Smiley said in an email.
"Smiley didn't immediately respond to questions about what that would mean once the courts eventually uphold or strike down the gay marriage ban in the state constitution. But other conversations with state officials made clear that the state is now processing same-sex marriage certificates in the same manner as other certificates from straight couples."
More, after the jump.
State officials further said that in the (unlikely) event that Wisconsin's marriage discrimination is upheld in court, married same-sex couples "may still need to contact the state office at that point to sort out their status," according to the Journal Sentinel.
In related news, Wisconsin's Department of Employee Trust Funds -- which is responsible for the pensions of most public workers -- said this week that it's waiting for guidance on how to handle pension and health benefits for same-sex spouses of state employees.
A full 50 of the state's 72 counties are now issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. And as the Journal Sentinel reports, while the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Dane Counties were the first to begin granting licenses last week, it quickly spread across the state to counties large and small, blue and red, urban and rural:
"Those 50 counties are home to three out of four Wisconsin voters. They include not just populous urban counties along Lake Michigan but rural counties in every region of the state, including the three most sparsely populated counties in Wisconsin (Iron, Florence and Forest).
"They include the state's 12 most Democratic counties (based on the 2012 presidential vote). But they also include seven of the 12 most Republican counties. Most notable among them: Waukesha, the most Republican County of its size in America. It was among the earliest counties to offer same-sex marriage licenses after the judge's ruling.
"As of Tuesday, 27 of the 36 counties carried by President Barack Obama in 2012 were offering same-sex marriage licenses. So were 23 of the 36 Wisconsin counties carried by Republican Mitt Romney."
The article notes that the diversity of Wisconsin's marriage equality counties corroborates the findings of recent polls, which have shown that a broad cross-section of the state supports the freedom to marry. The spread of same-sex marriage across the state "can be read as a sign of the shifting politics" on the issue, reporter Craig Gilbert writes.
Also this week, the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -- a notoriously conservative newspaper that's by far the state's largest -- urged Gov. Walker and Attorney General Van Hollen to follow the example of Republican Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania and drop their appeal of Judge Crabb's pro-equality ruling.
[B]eyond the shift reflected by opinion polls, there is a fundamental question of equal rights. Would Van Hollen and Walker defend a state ban on interracial marriages? On marriages between Catholics and Lutherans? Between Republicans and Democrats? Of course not, although some states did once ban interracial marriages. The right to have a consensual loving relationship recognized by the state should be accorded to everyone. Government should not interfere with such private matters...
[Crabb's ruling] was not just a victory for gay couples; it was a victory for equal rights for all Americans, and it follows a pattern from the civil rights era, when federal courts played a key role in striking down laws that had imposed second-class citizenship on African-Americans. These bans had done the same to gay couples; it's good to see the bans meeting the same fate...
[Van Hollen] should refrain from such an appeal and recognize that Crabb's ruling -- like other such rulings across the country -- is a victory for freedom for all Americans.
Barring the unforeseen, the next step in this process is a hearing set by Judge Crabb to hear arguments on how she should officially order state officials to proceed. That hearing, originally scheduled for June 19, was moved up to Friday, June 13 at 1 p.m. local time.
Until then, marry on, Cheeseheads!