The Wisconsin Supreme Court has this morning unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the state's 2009 domestic partnership registry, which provides important but limited benefits to same-sex couples.
In November 2006, Wisconsin voters passed a marriage discrimination amendment banning same-sex marriage and anything "substantially similar." But three years later, lawmakers passed domestic partnership protections for same-sex couples as part of Democratic Governor Jim Doyle's budget, becoming the first state with an existing marriage discrimination amendment to do so.
Wisconsin's domestic partnership registry offers 43 basic legal protections to same-sex couples, including the right to take family medical leave to care for a sick partner, the right to inherit a partner's property in the absence of a will, hospital visitation rights, and the right not to be forced to testify against a partner in court.
The rights afforded to domestic partners in Wisconsin are but a fraction of the more than 200 protections granted to married opposite-sex couples under state law. By no reasonable measure can domestic partnerships be considered "substantially similar" to marriage -- or even remotely similar, for that matter.
Nonetheless, Wisconsin Family Action -- an anti-LGBT, anti-choice, pro-"intelligent design" GOP front group that's so homophobic they've even tried to derail drag shows at state universities -- filed suit to overturn the registry, arguing that same-sex couples in the Dairy State don't deserve even the tiny shred of recognition, security, and dignity that domestic partnerships provide. They even dragged Michael and me into one of their court filings, mistakenly citing one of our wedding photos as "proof" that domestic partnerships are "substantially similar" to marriage. (Seriously.)
Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court wisely rejected WFA's arguments. But it's their only wise ruling of the morning: they also upheld the constitutionality of Act 10 -- Governor Scott Walker's union-busting law that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for public employees -- and the state's voter ID law, which is still on hold after a federal judge struck it down in April for violating the U.S. Constitution.
Speaking of the U.S. Constitution, the Wisconsin Supremes' decision on domestic partnerships may have a limited impact, because the state's ability to continue denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry is in doubt: U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb struck down the state's marriage discrimination amendment last month.
The state has appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, which will hear oral arguments in the case, along with another case challenging Indiana's statutory marriage ban, on August 26.
Statements from pro-equality groups affiliated with the case acknowledged this seismic shift in the conversation around same-sex relationship recognition in Wisconsin. Here's Lambda Legal, which defended the registry after Scott Walker refused to do so:
"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 Legal. "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.
"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," Clark added.
Statewide LGBT advocacy group Fair Wisconsin weighs in:
"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."
And here's Kathy Flores, one of the intervening defendents-respondents in the case:
"While it is great that the WI Supreme Court recognizes that Ann and I, and all the other couples who are registered domestic partners, deserve the right to hospital visitation, we now await on the ruling on marriage equality by the federal courts because marriage comes with over 1,000 rights and responsibilities. We won't stop until full rights for couples are guaranteed."
Indeed. Forward, Wisconsin!
A copy of the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision in the domestic partnership registry case is after the break, via Equality Case Files.