Same-sex couples in Wisconsin must be thinking a lot about second-class citizenship these days. With courts and legislatures in Iowa and Vermont being added to the list of state governments that acknowledge gay and lesbian equality, we have to ask "where is Wisconsin?"
Wisconsin voters who said "no" to the same-sex marriage ban in 2006 were shocked when it passed. Mostly because the amendment went too far: it clearly stated that same-sex marriage would be illegal, but it also bashed civil unions. Anything "substantially similar" to marriage would be illegal for any family outside of the "one-man-one-woman" structure. Those who voted "no" knew that the amendment would institutionalize discrimination and take away equal protection for gay and lesbian people in Wisconsin.
But during the debates around this amendment referendum, many fervent opponents of gay and lesbian equality were clear that the same-sex marriage ban would not take away the ability of government or businesses to recognize certain benefits or protections.
In November of 2005, legislators received a memo from state Senator Scott Fitzgerald and Rep. Mark Gundrum saying that "no particular privileges or benefits would be prohibited" under the marriage ban. They put into writing that legal constructs by governments would be allowed.
Although opponents of the marriage ban expressed fears about its potential impact on domestic partner benefits, the supporters of it, including the chief sponsors of the bill, consistently took the position that domestic partner benefits were safe.
Today the 2009 Executive Budget proposal for the state of Wisconsin (AB 75) would provide for the creation of a domestic partnership registry. Same-sex couples who registered with the state could start a process of being afforded a limited set of benefits or protections.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin wrote to the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance to explain why the proposal does not violate the Wisconsin Constitution’s ban on creating a legal status “substantially similar to that of marriage….”
"These budget provisions are not even close to being substantially similar to marriage,” wrote ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty.
Because the case in defense of the proposal is so strong and because of the ACLU’s long standing support of protections for domestic partners, Ahmuty assured legislators that, “the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Wisconsin are prepared to help defend domestic partners in court.”
Ahmuty, concluded his letter by urging legislators, “to adopt the domestic partner registry proposal with at least the current number, if not more, protections attached.”
Ultimately, it's nice that the legislature is taking a step toward fairness. But let's not forget that for years legislative leaders who supported the marriage ban have gone above and beyond to describe how domestic partnership benefits are inferior to the legal protections provided by marriage.
A domestic partnership registry can help real families in Wisconsin. But it isn't marriage. Our legislators know it. The courts will show it. And it's our friends and families that will have to live with second-class citizenship.