Wisconsin Couples Watch for Court Decision on Gay Marriage

Jun 24, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on questions regarding same-sex marriage.

A number of states have adopted laws affecting the rights of gay and lesbian couples. For instance, last month Minnesota became the 12th state to allow them to marry. There’s a chance the court’s decisions could impact laws across the country.

In 2006, Wisconsin voters approved a constitutional amendment. It defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Despite their disappointment, gay and lesbian couples continued fighting for recognition. The Legislature responded, by approving a domestic partnership registry in 2009. Katie Belanger is with the LGBT rights group, Fair Wisconsin.

Denise Cawley, Anne Hefter and their son. The couple got married in Massachusetts, because Wisconsin law prohibits same-sex marriage.
Credit David Lauersdorf

“That registry provides about a quarter of the protections that marriage provides to opposite sex couples, these are things like hospital visitation, family medical leave, inheritance,” Belanger says.

Belanger says the registry was a huge victory, following the defeat voters had delivered. She retains hope that one day, Wisconsin will repeal its ban on same-sex marriage.

But Juliane Appling believes the ban is secure. She heads the group Wisconsin Family Action. It opposes same-sex marriage.

“We have an amendment put in place by a nearly 60-40 vote, the amendment is in the Constitution. In order for that to be different, someone is going to have to pass legislation in two consecutive legislative sessions, that undoes the current amendment, then put it to the people for a vote,” Appling says.

Appling’s group is suing the state over its domestic partnership registry, saying it too closely resembles marriage. The state Supreme Court has agreed to consider the case.

Meanwhile, some gay and lesbian couples are trying to obtain as many legal protections as possible, under what’s currently allowed in Wisconsin. Denise Cawley and Anne Hefter, who’ve been together 17 years, have signed up for the domestic partnership registry. Hefter says they also traveled to Massachusetts to get married, and have taken other steps to add layers of recognition. The two have a young son, Aiden, who’s Cawley’s biological child.

“I am Aiden’s guardian until he’s 18 years old, and we went to court when he was two months old for that. We also have a trust, a living will. We have all our paperwork, all our ducks in a row,” Hefter says.

UW-Madison professor Karma Chavez studies attitudes about, and laws affecting, LGBT people. She says while Wisconsin has shifted to the right in terms of its state politics, she sees the pendulum slowly heading in the other direction.

“Particularly in relation to Wisconsin since the 2012 election, because of Tammy Baldwin and Mark Pocan. So it’s sort of like, ‘well – wow -- so in 2006, they banned gay marriage, and yet here are these few openly gay representatives,’” Chavez says.

Chavez also cites a March Marquette Law School poll, indicating there’s more support for same-sex marriage in the state now, than when voters approved the ban.

Juliane Appling of Wisconsin Family Action acknowledges attitudes are shifting, yet doubts voters would backtrack.

“If they were faced with an amendment vote again, I think we still win. You may not see a 60-40 vote, but I think we still win in the end, and so I think that’s still reflective of the will of the people of Wisconsin,” Appling says.

No matter what decisions Wisconsin makes, the U.S. Supreme Court could affect the law here. The justices will rule any day, in two cases involving the rights of same-sex couples. Janine Geske is a professor of law at Marquette. She says one case involves Proposition 8 in California. It’s the constitutional amendment voters approved, to rescind the right to same-sex marriage.

“One of the arguments in that case is to say that there is a constitutional right to marry. If the court would recognize that right, it would affect every state,” Geske says.

However, Geske says the high court might rule on details specific to California, only. She says the other case could be more likely to impact couples throughout the country. It involves the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Under the law, the U.S. government can deny federal tax and Social Security benefits for married same-sex couples. The court will decide whether it’s constitutional for the government to do so.