Today J.B. Van Hollen -- Wisconsin's far-right Republican attorney general -- significantly escalated his crusade against marriage equality in the Badger State, claiming that county clerks who issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples may be prosecuted for doing so.
All but nine of Wisconsin's 72 counties are currently issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said Thursday that same-sex couples who have wed in recent days are not married in the eyes of the law and that county clerks issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples could be prosecuted.
"You do have many people in Wisconsin basically taking the law into their own hands and there can be legal repercussions for that," Van Hollen said. "So, depending on who believes they're married under the law and who doesn't believe they're married under the law may cause them to get themselves in some legal problems that I think are going to take years for them and the courts to work out."
He said he did not believe same-sex couples could be prosecuted but that county clerks risked that happening.
"That's going to be up to district attorneys, not me," he said. "There are penalties within our marriage code, within our statutes, and hopefully they're acting with full awareness of what's contained therein."
Van Hollen made the remarks in an interview today at the headquarters of the state Department of Justice.
Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell, one of the first two clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after a federal judge found Wisconsin's marriage discrimination amendment unconstitutional, blasted Van Hollen's threat:
McDonell said the possibility of prosecution "doesn't keep me up at night." McDonell, the first clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Wisconsin, called Van Hollen's claim of possible charges ridiculous.
"He needs to call off the dogs and turn off the fire hoses," he said, invoking the civil rights protests of the 1960s.
More, after the jump.
For his part, Van Hollen characterizes these blatant intimidation tactics as a noble and heroic defense of Wisconsin's constitution:
"The (state) constitution says only couples of the opposite gender can get married," he said. "Constitutions don't defend themselves. They're not worth the paper they're written on if someone does not defend what's in there...My primary oath and obligation that I have as attorney general above all else is to defend our constitution, above our laws, above everything else.
"It's actually quite a simple concept that people are either intentionally confusing, don't want to understand or really haven't gotten the message."
In his zeal to thwart marriage equality in Wisconsin and bully county clerks who've moved to implement it in compliance with a court ruling, Van Hollen appears to have forgotten that the United States Constitution takes precedence over those of the individual states. Wisconsin's marriage discrimination amendment was found to be in violation of the federal Constitution, and therefore is invalid.
County clerks in Wisconsin who are issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples are acting within the law, but under an interpretation of the law that Van Hollen doesn't like -- so he's trying to bully them into compliance. Such conduct is both despicable and lawless, and reminiscent of the most shameful intimidation tactics of the Jim Crow South.
UPDATE: Wisconsin attorney and LGBT equality advocate Tamara Packard responded to Van Hollen on Facebook, accusing him of willfully distorting the truth in order to justify anti-LGBT animus:
To those reading the latest statement from the Attorney General: he has always worked to defeat marriage equality. He is not a reliable source of information. The [Wisconsin] statutes have penalties for a clerk "who knowingly issues a marriage license contrary to or in violation of" the Wisconsin statutes governing marriage.
The statutes that limit licenses to [heterosexual] couples have been declared unconstitutional. That means they are null and void. The clerks issuing these licenses are doing so in conformance with the law. And even if we lived in JB's fantasy world where those unconstitutional statutes are still "in effect," the clerks legitimately believe them not to be, and thus are not "knowingly" doing anything unauthorized.
Keep calm and marry on! And P.S., there are no penalties for those entering into these marriages, even in JB's fantasy world. Unless his fantasy world includes new statutes, too.