New proposals aim to protect marriage equality in Wisconsin

A.J. Blanchet, middle left, of Madison, and Dallas Peters, right, of Madison, march down King Street in Madison, Wis., during a rally Friday, June 26, 2015. Gay marriage has been legal in Wisconsin for months, but supporters still trumpeted a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Friday legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide with relief and joy, saying it cements same-sex unions in the state. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, Steve Apps)

Wisconsin lawmakers plan to introduce a set of bills that would protect marriage equality rights by updating language in state statutes and in the state’s Constitution.

The proposal comes as LGBTQ+ rights are being challenged across the country and in Wisconsin, with pressure from far-right groups, a rise in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, and a spike in discriminatory legislation at the state level.

“It is long past time for our state Constitution and state statutes to reflect that marriage equality is the law of the land, and has been now for nearly a decade,” said Democratic state Sen. Mark Spreitzer at a press conference held at the Capitol in Madison on Wednesday with the LGBTQ+ caucus announcing the planned legislation.

In 2006, voters passed a referendum amending the Wisconsin Constitution to ban the recognition of same-sex marriages in the state. After federal courts ruled in 2014 that the amendment violated the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 that same-sex marriage rights are constitutionally protected, same-sex marriage became legal in the state; but the Wisconsin Constitution still defines marriage as only between one man and one woman. One of the newly introduced bills would change that.

“One of the worst days in the Legislature is when that constitutional amendment passed in 2006, and some of my colleagues came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Don’t take it personal.’ It’s been personal, and it’s been in our Constitution for about 17 years, and it’s time to repeal it,” said Democratic Sen. Tim Carpenter. “It’s time to remove the graffiti from our state Constitution by removing Article 13, Section 13. And I think it would be a great step to try and let people know that everyone is invited and welcome here in the state of Wisconsin,”

Another bill would change language in some state statutes that reference “husbands and wives,” changing the wording to “spouses.” The current language creates barriers and legal challenges for same-sex couples, legislators said, because statute language doesn’t recognize them.

“There are many examples in our state statutes of these outdated references, including things as mundane as a husband-and-wife hunting or fishing license, and things as critical to families as insurance coverage, retirement and death benefits,” Spretizer said.

The bill would also clarify parental rights for same-sex couples, ensuring adoption rights for married couples, the right of married couples to have a child through artificial insemination, and the right of two people who have a child together within their marriage to be presumed to be the legal parents of that child.

“These parentage clarifications are critically important. LGBTQ+ couples across Wisconsin have faced legal challenges to secure equal parental rights, and a lack of clear guidance and statutes has meant that same-sex couples often need to go to court to have their rights secured, leading to legal fees for both families and the state,” Spreitzer said.

Jamie Gaffke and Ruth Vater have personal experience with these legal challenges, having had to hire a lawyer to make sure both of their names were on their son’s birth certificate.

“We had spent a lot of money on legal fees, a lot of sleepless nights worried about the state of our family, and knowing that we could potentially be unprotected at the drop of a hat,” Gaffke told Wisconsin Watch. “That was a really scary time for our family.”

The proposals were announced the same day as the state Senate Committee on Mental Health, Substance Abuse Prevention, Children and Families is held public hearings on two bills that would ban transgender girls and women from competing in girls and women’s sports at publicly funded K-12 schools and colleges in the state.

“While we’re pleased to highlight these bills today, which advance equality and hold that LGBTQ+ Wisconsinites deserve equal treatment under the law, we cannot let it go unnoticed today that later in the state Senate they will be taking up patently discriminatory bills that are cruel and further diminish the humanity of our transgender community,” Democratic Rep. Lee Snodgrass said.

Last week, Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a bill that would have prevented doctors from providing gender-affirming care to young people in Wisconsin’s youth, and he has promised to veto other anti-transgender bills that arrive on his desk.

“Republicans know full well that these bills will be vetoed, but continue to push their culture wars targeting Wisconsin’s transgender youth. They’re trying to score political points by marginalizing our vulnerable youth, which is cruel and unnecessary,” said Democratic Rep. Melissa Ratcliff.

Despite this, Spreitzer seemed optimistic that there could be bipartisan support for the marriage equality bills, saying the issue has received support from across the aisle before.

“We will continue to work to find more Republican colleagues who are willing to join us,” he said.