Wisconsin Partnership Law Fought as Too Like Marriage

Wisconsin’s domestic partnership law should be struck down because it too closely mimics marriage, violating a state constitutional amendment, lawyers for a group of taxpayers told the state’s highest court.

The plaintiffs, who first sued in 2010, asked the seven-member court in Madison to reverse lower-court rulings that upheld the domestic partnership provision signed into law in 2009 by former Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat.

“We are asking the court to declare the law unconstitutional in its entirety,” taxpayers’ lawyer Austin Nimocks told the judges yesterday. The domestic partnership law can’t be saved by striking only parts of it, said Nimocks, an attorney the with Scottsdale, Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom.

The hearing before the Wisconsin Supreme Court came two days after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, withdrew his appeal of a Sept. 27 trial court ruling recognizing same-sex marriage under that state’s constitution. New Jersey is the 14th state to legalize gay weddings.

In 2006, Wisconsin voters chose to amend the state’s constitution to add a provision defining marriage as between one man and one woman and prohibiting recognition of “a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals.”

Designated Partner

The Domestic Partnership legislation signed into law by Doyle requires those seeking that status to be more than 18 years old, of the same gender, residing with their designated partner and not closer in relation than second cousins by whole or half-blood or by adoption.

The administration of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, declined to defend the domestic partnership measure. The gay rights advocacy groups Fair Wisconsin and the Lambda Legal Defense Education Fund are defending the law in court.

Their courtroom opponent, the Alliance, describes itself on its website as “a servant ministry building an alliance to keep the door open for the spread of the gospel by transforming the legal system and advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life and marriage and family.”

Same-sex couples would lose dozens of benefits if the law is overturned, Christopher R. Clark, an attorney with Lambda Legal, said in court yesterday, telling the justices there are 30 to 40 specific rights contained in other legislation that reference the domestic partnership law.

‘Real Ramifications’

“There are very real ramifications for same-sex couples and their families,” Clark said. “Wisconsin would be taking a real step back.”

Nimocks told the court the state’s Legislature could introduce other legislation that would provide the benefits the Domestic Partnership law provides to same-sex couples.

Milwaukee has had a domestic partnership registry since 1999 and Madison adopted one earlier. Some state schools provide benefits to same-sex couples, as do a number of private employers, according to a brief filed by the LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Nimocks said that if the justices found parts of the law unconstitutional while letting others stand it “would be an error and a disservice to the voters” who passed the constitutional amendment.

An intermediate appellate court last year found the domestic partnership law didn’t confer “substantially similar” rights and upheld a trial court ruling the measure is constitutional.

‘Substantially Similar’

“It would ‘take pages’ to list the rights and obligations that go with marriages but not domestic partnerships,” the Wisconsin Court of Appeals said in its Dec. 20 decision, citing the lower court’s rationale.

“It is not necessary to list that many here to demonstrate that, regardless of the precise meaning of the term ‘substantially similar,’ the rights and obligations of marriage are not substantially similar to the rights and obligations of domestic partnerships,” Appeals Court Judge Paul Lundsten wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.

After the hearing, a couple supporting the legislation said they feared their would be a real impact.

Crystal Hyslop of Appleton said her partner, Janice Czyson, wasn’t allowed to be with her when she was hospitalized for cancer in 2008. They registered as domestic partners under the 2009.

“They are arguing about a law,” Hyslop said. “We are talking about our lives and our rights.”

The case is Appling v. Walker, 2011AP1572, Wisconsin Supreme Court (Madison). The lower court case is Appling v. Doyle, 2010-cv-004434, Dane County, Wisconsin, Circuit Court (Madison).

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