lawmakers and conservative groups are fighting for a
constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union
between one man and one woman. Fearing their rights
and way of life are under attack, gay rights groups
and their supporters are fighting to keep things as is.
Both sides are gearing up for the final push in the debate
over the proposed amendment, which will have a public
hearing Tuesday in the state capitol.
The amendment must be approved by consecutive
two-year sessions of the legislature before it can go
to voters in a statewide referendum. Lawmakers easily
approved the amendment under first consideration last
year, and groups on both sides of the debate acknowledge
they are likely to approve it again.
That means the next 11 months will see campaigns
from both sides to win over voters in anticipation of
a statewide referendum on the November general
election ballot. Texas became the 19th state to approve a
constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage; none of
the states that have put a proposed amendment on the
ballot have seen it defeated.
After Tuesday's public hearing, committees in
both chambers are expected vote on the amendment. If
lawmakers approve it again, Wisconsin voters will be
asked for an up or down vote on whether to amend the
constitution to limit marriage to one man and one
woman while prohibiting legal recognition of any
relationship "identical or substantially similar to
that of marriage for unmarried individuals."
Voters cannot change the language of the
amendment, and opponents are hoping to counter it on
One, they hope to show gay and lesbian couples
and families to put a human face on what they say is
an effort to discriminate. Two, they hope to play on
concerns the amendment would prohibit granting any
recognition to unmarried couples, such as health care benefits.
Madison and Milwaukee have domestic-partner
registries for same-sex couples that are largely
symbolic. Several Wisconsin school districts also
offer health care benefits for unmarried couples, as do two
technical colleges. The state and University of Wisconsin
system do not. Last year the city of Madison and Dane
County released opinions from their lawyers saying the
amendment could bar them from offering health
insurance to domestic partners.
Joshua Freker, spokesman for the gay rights
group Action Wisconsin, which opposes the amendment,
said opponents believe the amendment could have an
even further reach than that.
In Michigan, the attorney general issued a legal
opinion that a similar amendment bars public employers
from offering domestic-partner benefits. In Ohio, a
judge ruled an amendment there prohibits the filing of
domestic violence charges against unmarried people. "We want
to make sure people know, even if they are uncertain
about the question of marriage, that this amendment is
more far-reaching than that," Freker said.
The amendment does not clearly define at what
point a relationship recognized by the state becomes
"identical or substantially similar" to marriage. If
the amendment were approved, lawsuits would likely
ensue to define which relationships between nonmarried
people could still be recognized.
Should lawmakers approve the amendment, the
Department of Justice will do an analysis to estimate
what the impact would be.
Both sides are now ramping up their efforts to
lobby on the amendment, which surfaced after Gov. Jim
Doyle vetoed legislation more than two years ago to
define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
The governor argued that state law already limits marriage
to a man and a wife, but amendment supporters have
argued that a judge could overrule state statutes and
force recognition of same-sex marriages as has
happened in Massachusetts.
Action Wisconsin, meanwhile, has grown to 14
staffers from two. It has been actively working with
various religious organizations to oppose the
amendment and has won support from several of them. "We want
them to see this amendment will have an impact on real
people that live in their communities," Freker said.