Lawsuit challenges Wis. domestic partnership law

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -

Social conservatives asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday to strike down the state's new domestic partnership law, saying it violates a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

The lawsuit, filed by three members of Wisconsin Family Action, acknowledges the court will not have time to act before the law goes into effect next month but says justices should halt registrations as soon as possible.

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed the law in the state budget last month. Starting Aug. 3, same-sex couples can register with counties to receive dozens of the same legal protections as married couples, including the right to inherit assets, make hospital visits and take medical leave to care for an ill partner.

Wisconsin became the first Midwestern state to enact legal protections for same-sex couples through the Legislature. It also became the first nationwide to allow domestic partnerships despite having a ban on gay marriage and any "substantially similar'' relationships.

The lawsuit argues domestic partnerships violate that clause in the constitution, approved by voters in 2006, because they are "virtually identical'' to traditional marriages. Wisconsin Family Action led the campaign for the ban and threatened legal action against the law for months.

"This new domestic partnership scheme is precisely the type of marriage imitation that the constitutional amendment approved by Wisconsin voters was intended to prevent," said lawyer Brian Raum of the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group representing the plaintiffs.

One of the plaintiffs, Wisconsin Family Action President Julaine Appling, called the law "an assault on the people, the state constitution, the democratic process, and the institution of marriage.''

The lawsuit notes the steps to register domestic partnerships are similar to obtaining marriage licenses and says same-sex couples will receive "a substantial number of the significant legal rights and obligations historically reserved to married couples.''

It names as defendants Doyle and two officials responsible for administering the registry, Department of Health Services Secretary Karen Timberlake and State Registrar of Vital Statistics John Kiesow.

Doyle spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner pledged to vigorously defend the law.

"We're confident these are, and always have been presented as, just a set of basic legal protections for committed couples," he said.

One hurdle that Wisconsin Family Action members face is proving they have standing to bring the lawsuit. They claim they do because they are harmed by the use of tax dollars to administer the registry.

A memo by the nonpartisan Legislative Council concluded this spring the law should survive a legal challenge because it does not give "comprehensive, core aspects of the legal status of marriage to same-sex couples.'' Those include the ability to divorce and share marital property.

Another obstacle is that supporters of the ban repeatedly said it was not intended to stop government from providing health, retirement and other benefits to same-sex couples short of marriage. Those statements were a key point in the Legislative Council analysis.

"Legally, it's clear they have no basis for the lawsuit," said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, a gay man who sponsored the law. "They simply don't like a certain group of people.''

The lawsuit was filed with the state's highest court to speed up the outcome by bypassing lower courts. Four of the court's seven justices would have to agree to hear the case.

Raum said he hoped to have a high-court decision "within a matter of weeks.''

Fair Wisconsin, the state's largest gay-rights group, sent an urgent e-mail to members seeking donations to help defend the law while expressing confidence it would be upheld.

Its executive director, Katie Belanger, said the lawsuit gives more urgency to same-sex couples to register as early as possible before the court could invalidate the law. She said that urgency could add to the long lines that county clerks were already expecting Aug. 3.

A UCLA think-tank study has estimated 1,400 to 5,000 same-sex couples would register their relationships in the first year.

The high court is already considering whether the 2006 amendment was improperly put to voters. A lawsuit claims the referendum illegally decided two separate questions with one vote, whether to ban gay marriage and whether to ban civil unions. Oral arguments are expected in coming months.

The amendment defines marriage as between one man and one woman and adds, "A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state.''

The filing comes as the high court has increasingly shifted to the right. Two judges elected to the court in 2007 and 2008 have given conservatives a clear majority, which they have used to limit corporate liability and expand religious freedom in recent weeks.

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