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Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Decision on Marriage Amendment Referendum: ACLU of Wisconsin Responds

30 Jun

Today, Christopher Ahmuty, the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin issued the following statement in response to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision affirming the lower court’s ruling that the marriage amendment adopted by Wisconsin’s voters in 2006 did not violate the separate amendment rule of the Wisconsin Constitution. This constitutional rule requires that voters must be able to vote separately on separate constitutional amendments.

Ahmuty said, “the Court wisely limited its analysis of the marriage amendment’s two clauses, without trying to decide ‘what legal statuses identical or substantially similar to marriage are prohibited by this [the second] clause…’ The ACLU maintains that the marriage amendment’s second clause only prohibits ‘marriage by another name’ which confers all the benefits, protections, and responsibilities of civil marriages. The Court’s decision means the fight for recognition of same sex domestic relationships will continue to advance, a fight in which the ACLU will continue to participate vigorously.

“The ACLU of Wisconsin joined Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and Fair Wisconsin in filing an amicus brief in McConkey v. Van Hollen.”

For more of our recent work on LGBT rights, visit the issues section of our website.

Victory! Federal Court Says Transgender People Allowed Medical Treatment in Prison

2 Apr

On Wednesday, March 31, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin struck down a law that barred transgender people from receiving medical care while they are incarcerated. The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal challenged the law in January 2006 on behalf of transgender prisoners, some of whom had been receiving hormones in Wisconsin prisons for years prior to the passage of the law.

“This decision recognizes that many transgender prisoners require individualized medical treatment. While the court’s ruling does not require any particular treatment, it does mean that doctors are the ones who make these medical decisions,” said John Knight, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT Project. “The court’s decision is just common sense.”

Overriding concerns raised by of the Department of Corrections medical personnel, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law, effective in January 2006, that prohibited prison doctors from deciding the best course of treatment for transgender people by barring them from prescribing any type of hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery for transgender people in state custody.

“The court understood that medical treatment is critical for transgender people and that medical decisions should be made by doctors not legislators,” said Dru Levasseur, Lambda Legal’s Transgender Rights attorney. “The state cannot decide to withhold treatment from people because they disapprove of their gender identity or medical needs: it’s unconstitutional.”

The lawsuit charged that it is a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection as well as the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment to bar transgender inmates from access to individualized medical care. The legal groups based their challenge on federal case law that establishes that health care providers must determine proper treatment for all prison inmates.

The court ruled that the statute’s ban on medical care constitutes deliberate indifference to the plaintiff’s serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment inasmuch as enforcement of the statute results in the denial of hormone therapy without regard for the individual medical needs of inmates and the medical judgment of their health care providers.

According to the ACLU and Lambda Legal, Wisconsin is the only state in the country to have enacted a law denying transgender people access to medical care while in state custody. The legal team includes John Knight, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project; Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin; Cole Thaler and Levasseur, former and current Transgender Rights Project attorneys at Lambda Legal and cooperating attorney Erik Guenther of Hurley, Burish & Stanton, S.C.

Find out more about the Sundstrom v. Frank case on-line, on the Lambda Legal website or read the judge’s order.

The news did get some media attention in Wisconsin. There was an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article and on WISN-ABC 12. The news will likely fuel lots of transphobic sentiments like what you’d find in the Dakota Voice blog (noteworthy: bloggers are pointing out how judges are either elected or appointed by elected officials and that elections matter).

But despite such backlash, things are changing for the trans community. For example, this year, the Obama Administration has added transgender/gender identity to the list of classes of people against whom discrimination in federal employment is prohibited. Check out this page on the ACLU website that answers lots of questions about the rights of transgender people and the law. It covers discrimination law, family law, criminal hate crimes and more.

Thumbs Up to Carthage College for Allowing Student Protest and Dialogue

20 Feb

This evening on the campus of Carthage College in Kenosha, a student-led rally is being held to protest Saturday’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s keynote speaker who is allegedly opposed to homosexuals and shares an anti-gay message.

Although Carthage College is a private religious institution, students encouraged the school to disinvite the speaker. The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin hopes the school will encourage future speakers with differing ideas to expand the dialogue at the school in the same way they are allowing the InterVarsity program to continue.

“Since the biology professor at Fresno City College incorporated anti-homosexual pseudoscience in his classes,” said UW-Parkside sophomore Maggie Piery, an ACLU Student Alliance member, “it seems like some new sick trend to have anti-gay speakers at centers of higher education. I’m glad I attend a public institution where there is a strong commitment to both diverse perspectives and also supporting a diverse student body including LGBT students.”

Earlier this afternoon the Vice President of Enrollment and Student Affairs along with other school officials arranged for space to be provided for a simultaneous speak-out for students with opposing viewpoints to discuss tomorrow’s controversy. The ACLU of Wisconsin applauds this effort by the school to accommodate and encourage more free speech, student debate and an open and fair exchange of ideas.

News roundup: Grothman not a fan of sex ed, medical marijuana in Berlin (WI), spying on abortion activists and more…

19 Feb

Here is some news you might have missed..

We got coverage on Milwaukee’s TMJ4 on the ACLU’s opposition to an effort by lawmakers to bar public disclosure of 911 calls. “The public deserves to get all the information with very limited exceptions,” said Christopher Ahmuty of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. “Those exceptions should be done on the basis of a balancing test that’s in the current law now.”

Senator Glenn Grothman was a bit hit in the blogosphere when he said in a Cap Times interview that he didn’t approve of the comprehensive sex ed bill that’s headed to the Governor’s desk on Wednesday. It might have been his comments about how teasing feminine boys was normal at his high school that even got the attention of Perez Hilton. Note to all Wisconsin state legislators: bullying or discriminating against gay youth is NOT okay. (But it is okay to give the ACLU a shout out in Glee!)

Did you see the coverage of the medical marijuana advocacy event in Berlin, WI? Central Wisconsin folks asked if their medicine was legal yet. Another lobby day is scheduled at the Capitol on Wednesday. Contact IMMLY for details.

Madison city council alders are considering a parental responsibility law. The proposal is being pushed by the same folks who tried to keep kids inside earlier at last year’s curfew ordinance that the ACLU of Wisconsin helped to defeat. If you are a single mom who works three jobs to scrape by and your youngster gets a ticket for disorderly conduct at the bus transfer point, will you have time to go to court to deal with the fine in your name?

Speaking of Madisonians with limited income, we’ve been observing the housing issue around Shorewood Hills and the proposal to replace the nearly vacant Pyare Square building. Some residents of the affluent neighborhood complained about a large apartment complex that housed limited-income families, but developers tried to quell their fears by making the complex for seniors. Finally the whole project was scrapped due to the height of the building design. Whenever there are concerns about building affordable housing, our ears prick up mostly because of fights like what happened in South Milwaukee with the Lake Point Apartments.

Remember the dust up over anti-Hmong comments by a UW law professor? The dust hasn’t completely settled. Madison Hmong community leader is still asking questions about the Hmong studies program that was promised to be added to the university offerings.

The news broke that Homeland Security was working with Middleton police last year to spy on anti-abortion activists who were planning a big rally that would no doubt overwhelm the police resources. The news said that DHS investigated both prochoice and anti-abortion activists, but we haven’t heard from prochoicers about alleged probes. We’re a prochoice organization, but DHS can’t spy on activists. Period. Only when there is probable cause (i.e. evidence that’s more than a hunch that a crime will be committed) can an investigation legally be started. The feds admitted wrongly investigating the activists, but Middleton police aren’t turning over records and feds say they deleted copies of the assessment. Sorry Michele Malkin, we do care when government spies on First Amendment protected activity.

The ACLU’s Bill of Rights Celebration is tomorrow! Twitter fan? @ACLUofWisconsin and @ACLUMadison will be live tweeting at the #BORC event! Follow us to hear more from blogger journalist @anamariecox!

Saturday: ACLU Bill of Rights Celebration in Milwaukee, Ana Marie Cox, Civil LIberties Awards and More

15 Feb

On Saturday, February 20, 2010 the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin members and supporters will exercise their own freedom of assembly at the annual Bill of Rights Celebration.

This year’s event will feature pioneering political journalist and founder of the Wonkette Blog Ana Marie Cox. The “Wonkette Emeritus” continues to shape the future of journalism across media, at her personal blog and on Twitter where she has more than 1.5 million followers. Cox is a frequent guest on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show and broke new ground with live blogs of the State of the Union for GQ Magazine and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hearings for The Awl.

This ACLU of Wisconsin event will honor the work of several outstanding organizations and compatriots in the fight to protect our freedoms.

The Eunice Z. Edgar Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to The Progressive Magazine in recognition of more than a century of incisive journalism. The Progressive was founded in 1909 by beloved Wisconsin Senator and civil libertarian Robert La Follette and is a voice for freedom. Projects like “McCarthyism Watch” exemplify the role of the press as a check on the actions of government and a defender of civil liberties and civil rights.

The William Gorham Rice Civil Libertarians of the Year Award will honor the West Bend Activists for Free Speech who stood up to book burners and censorship in their community.

Jack and Lucy Rosenberg Youth Civil Libertarian of the Year Award acknowledges the work and legacy of Camp Everytown for producing a generation of young Wisconsin leaders. Each summer high-school age participants receive intensive leadership training to help them become outspoken advocates against discrimination of every kind.

Tickets are still available. Go to our website for more information on the event and to order tickets online or contact Marion by email or phone 414-272-4032 extension 18.

Bonus:
You might also want to check out the latest issue of the Milwaukee Gazette (PDF), a sponsor of the Bill of Rights Celebration. You can see the fancy ad, and also read the article the magazine did on the important subject of homeless LGBT youth and the Cream City Foundation study which found that 23% of homeless young people in Milwaukee are sexual minority youth.

Victory! Challenge to Domestic Partner Registry Thrown Out by State Supreme Court

5 Nov

Committed Couples Can Continue To Enjoy Limited Protections Offered By Registry

On Wednesday, November 4 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union celebrated a decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court to dismiss a challenge to the state’s recently-enacted domestic partnership registry. The Court also rejected a request from board members of Wisconsin Family Action that the registry be declared unconstitutional and put indefinitely on hold. The ACLU represents five same-sex couples who asked to be allowed to participate in the case.

“The registry certainly doesn’t offer anywhere close to the protections that marriage would, but we’re grateful that the couples we represented can at least hang onto the limited legal protections it gives them, such as the ability to visit each other in the hospital,” said John Knight, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project.

Board members of Wisconsin Family Action had asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to strike down the domestic partner law as inconsistent with the amendment to the state constitution that bans same-sex couples from marriage. The dismissal of the case by the Wisconsin Supreme Court means that these petitioners may not begin their case in the Wisconsin Supreme Court but may re-file their case in a circuit court (a lower court), where both sides will be able to have a trial and present evidence to support their cases.

“The Wisconsin Supreme Court did the right thing rejecting this premature and ill-defined challenge. If the petitioners want to deprive thousands of families of some very basic protections, they should not be allowed to short-circuit the legal process of proving their case to a trial judge,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “We’re certain that if we end up having to deal with these arguments in a trial, we’ll be able to show how the limited protections offered by the domestic partnership registry in no way violate the marriage ban.”

The five couples represented by the ACLU had also asked the court to let them join the lawsuit so that they could help defend the new domestic partnership registry. That motion was denied as moot, since the lawsuit was dismissed. Fair Wisconsin, an LGBT advocacy organization whose members include same-sex couples who have registered as domestic partners under the new law, also sought to intervene in the lawsuit to help defend the law.

In addition to Dupuis and Knight, the legal team representing the couples includes Linda Hansen, David Froiland, Jason Plowman, Daniel Manna and David Goroff of Foley & Lardner, LLP.

Additional information about the ACLU’s motion, including bios and photographs of the couples, the legal documents filed and a fact sheet containing some of the comments made by the anti-gay activists seeking to strike the law, is available online.

Press coverage of the decision thus far has been limited, but there was coverage in the UW Badger Herald and a story on this morning’s Wisconsin Public Radio headlines.

Domestic Partners Seek To Intervene In Lawsuit Challenging Wisconsin’s Domestic Partner Law

22 Sep

The ACLU Urges Wisconsin Supreme Court To Send Case To Trial Court So That Those Most Affected By The Lawsuit Can Be Heard

On September 22, 2009, The American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion before the Wisconsin Supreme Court on behalf of five same-sex couples asking that they be allowed to participate in a lawsuit that will decide whether the state’s newly enacted domestic partner law violates Wisconsin’s anti-gay marriage amendment.

Anti-gay activists have asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to strike down the domestic partner law as inconsistent with the marriage amendment. The couples also ask the Court to reject the petition and send the case to a trial court so that evidence can be presented to show that the domestic partner law does not violate the anti-gay marriage amendment that passed in 2006.

“While the domestic partner law falls far short of marriage, we were grateful when it passed that we would no longer have to worry about being able to visit each other in the hospital,” said Jayne Dunnum who, along with her partner of 17 years, Robin Timm, registered to become domestic partners when the law went into effect this summer. “But with this lawsuit those fears are back, and we’d like the opportunity to explain to the courts how this affects us.”

According to the motion filed by the ACLU, the five same-sex couples meet all the legal requirements for becoming a party to the litigation and would suffer harm if the court overturns the domestic partner law.

“We’re hopeful that the Wisconsin Supreme Court will recognize that lesbian and gay couples have the most at stake in this lawsuit and deserve their day in court,” said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Only same-sex couples can describe what it’s like to fear not being able to visit a partner in the hospital or being left with nothing when a partner dies without a will. And only same-sex couples can explain what it means to be shut out of marriage and have to accept a poorly understood, second-class status as domestic partners with 43 legal protections versus more than 200 that come with marriage.”

The anti-gay activists who are seeking to take away the legal protections for registered domestic partners have claimed that they need a speedy resolution and are entitled to go directly to the Wisconsin Supreme Court because the modest legal protections granted to same-sex couples through the law somehow affect the marriages of straight couples. Rather incredulously, they also claim that it would be in the best interest of lesbian and gay couples to have a speedy resolution even though they are asking the court to strip domestic partners of all legal protections.

According to the ACLU, there are important factual issues in the case, such as the many ways in which domestic partnership differs from marriage, that call for the kind of testimony that same-sex couples can provide to the Court. To consider this important evidence, the Supreme Court should refuse to accept this case directly but instead allow a circuit court to develop the factual record.

During the political campaign for the anti-gay marriage amendment that is the basis for this lawsuit, these same anti-gay activists told the voters that domestic partner benefits would not be affected by the amendment and legislators said that the state would be allowed to pass a law giving same-sex couples some legal protections.

“The anti-gay activists misled the voters into passing the amendment by saying that it would not affect the rights of domestic partners. Then they tried to prevent the legislature from providing modest legal protections for same-sex couples. And soon after the bill went into effect, they brought a lawsuit to take those protections away, based on the amendment that they said would not affect such rights” said John Knight, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “It’s incredible the lengths they will go to deny committed couples basic protections for their families.”

The same-sex couples asking to be allowed into the lawsuit include:

Jayne Dunnum and Robin Timm from Plattsville, WI, have been together for 17 years. After Timm was injured on their farm and had to be rushed to the emergency room, they worry about being able to visit each other in the hospital and are hoping the domestic partner law will put an end to these worries.

Carol Schumacher and Virginia Wolf from Eau Claire, WI, have been together for 34 years. As they enter their senior years, the domestic partner law would ease their worries about being shut out of conversations about each other’s medical care and other end-of-life decisions and guarantee that they are not barred from sharing a room if they end up in a nursing home.

Wendy and Mary Woodruff from Milwaukee, WI, have been together for 12 years. As a minister for the Metropolitan Community Church, Rev. Wendy Woodruff has had to console a congregant who lost everything, including her home and furniture, when her partner was killed and the partner’s relatives claimed their entire estate. They fear the same thing would happen to them without the inheritance protections of the domestic partner law.

Judith Trampf and Katy Heyning from Madison, WI, celebrated their 20th Anniversary this summer. A few years back, Heyning had a seizure that left her unable to drive for six months. Unable to take family leave, Trampf had to use her vacation time to drive Katy to doctor’s appointments and to and from work. Under the domestic partner law, the couple would finally gain access to family leave protection.

Diane Schermann and Missy Collins from Eau Claire, WI, have known each other for 10 years and have been a couple for five. The couple is raising seven children, including Diane’s two children from a previous marriage, a new baby that Missy gave birth to through in vitro fertilization and four foster children, two of which are relatives of Collins. Like many couples their age, the couple has put off making wills because of the expense. The domestic partner law would guarantee that at least half of their joint property automatically passes to each other.

Lambda Legal also filed papers today to intervene in the Appling v. Doyle case on behalf of Fair Wisconsin, the statewide equality organization, and its members. Lambda Legal, like the ACLU, says domestic partnerships and marriages are not “substantially similar.”

Linda Hansen, David Froiland, Jason Plowman, Daniel Manna and David Goroff of Foley & Lardner, LLP are assisting ACLU attorneys Dupuis and Knight in representing the couples. Additional information about the ACLU’s motion, including bios and photographs of the couples and the legal documents filed today are available online.

News roundup: voting rights bill gathers momentum, update on DP registry challenge

28 Aug

A news round up from the week – good civil liberties articles and issues you don’t want to miss!

LGBT Rights
The Governor is hiring an outside council to represent the state in the challenge to the domestic partner registry. Lester Pines has represented the state before, most recently in the challenge against the Attorney General’s plan to make the Government Accountability Board purge the voter rolls before the 2008 elections.

Also, don’t get too confused as there is another challenge still pending. This one against the language of the ballot question itself. That hearing is set for November of this year.

Voting Rights
The ACLU of Wisconsin was a part of the hearings for AB 353, a bill that would restore voting rights to felons who are no longer incarcerated and are now living in our communities. The bill made the issues section of the Wisconsin State Journal and there was a supportive letter to the editor. The hearing got some media hits including on WPR headlines, a clip on the Wisconsin Radio Network site.

It’s difficult to find organizations that oppose this common sense voting rights measure. But the Attorney General made a statement against it. Read more about the issue and write your own letter to the editor of your local paper.

News roundup: tickets for cursing, public financing for judges, AG says no on DP benefits case and more

21 Aug

A news roundup from the week – good civil liberties articles and issues you don’t want to miss!

Free Speech
The Kenosha News picked up the story about a proposal to allow police to ticket the use of curse words against them.

And there was more coverage of the case of the man in Crivitz who flew his flag upside down. The flag pole got knocked down by angry residents. But then supporters helped to fix it. There was more coverage on NBC 15 and on WBAY-TV.

Fair Elections
The Impartial Justice bill got approval from the state Senate this week, making it one more step closer to becoming law. While public financing of campaigns is often controversial, the big money that influences state Supreme Court elections has made the past few competitive judicial seat races a cause for concern. If judges are to remain impartial, so should their sponsorship. See more about the issue on the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign website.

Lesbian and Gay Rights
Attorney General JB Van Hollen won’t represent the state in the Wisconsin Family Action challenge to the domestic partnership registry. This just means that the governor’s office will hire its own attorneys (special council). Probably will be pricey just to prove that a partnership registry with a handful of benefits isn’t anything even substantially similar to marriage.

Racial Disparity and Public Schools
Here’s a good article that explains “open enrollment” trends in Madison area schools. Open enrollment allows students to transfer to other schools if they are dissatisfied with their district. Civil rights advocates say that open enrollment leads to greater racial segregation and an erosion of Brown v. Board of Education. A quickly increasing number of students living in poverty is cited among violence and negative peer pressure as reasons to switch.

Event: Wisconsin Books to Prisoners Book Sale
Sat. Aug. 29th 12:00 Noon – 5:00 pm Orton Park Festival – near the corner of Rutledge and Few. Wisconsin Books To Prisoners Book Sale! Drop off your donated books and look over our fine collection of reading materials! All proceeds will go towards postage to send new books to those who are eager to read within the WI prison system. WI Books to Prisoners is a project of Rainbow Bookstore. For more details contact Rainbow Books (608) 257-6050.

News roundup: fair housing victory, NIMBY on detainees, blogging on profiling and more

7 Aug

Here’s a quick wrap-up of some civil liberties related news of the week…

Fair Housing
The ACLU of Wisconsin won a court case against the city of South Milwaukee to prevent the razing of an apartment building that housed a large portion of the city’s minority population. More details to come.

Close Guantanamo
Last month, some legislators introduced a bill to reject any Gitmo detainees from being housed in Wisconsin jails. It’s a move that legislators are attempting across the country to stir debate about terrorism, even though we already have many convicted terrorists behind bars on US soil (remember the perps from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Oklahoma City fed building bombing? Even Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is in Colorado). But this week, the Obama Administration was talking about the complexity of dealing with the often-uncharged detainees and that they might try to build a courthouse/supermax combo in Michigan or Kansas.

If you haven’t already, tell President Obama to reject indefinite detention and close Guantanamo asap.

Census and Redistricting
Census folks have been out in neighborhoods to confirm addresses since the spring, but the big count won’t happen until 2010. One of the big questions will be around how the count of prisoners will be used in future redistricting of politicans’ turf. A timely op-ed from the NY Times describes why counting prisoners where they are incarcerated makes redistricting complicated and unbalanced. Our own Wisconsin state legislators will be talking about Assembly Joint Resolution 63 which would exclude the census’ prisoner count from redistricting plans. The hearing will be on September 3.

Voting Rights
Senator Russ Feingold helped to introduce legislation at the federal level to end discrimination in voting rights against people with felony convictions. This interesting article gives the perspective from the southern states and describes why this voting rights issue echoes the long history of both Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex.

Response to the Wisconsin Democracy Restoration bill has been good. A large coalition of organizations is behind it and to date we have only found two blog posts against it (one from Sen. Mary Lazich and another from the same folks who brought complaints about gay and lesbian books in the West Bend community library.

Speaking of voting, did you get a letter from the Government Accountability Board about your voter registration status? They are cleaning up their databases. See your city clerk to get your info updated.

Racial Profiling
Opinions are mixed about the new seat belt/racial data collection item the budget the Governor signed last month. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation cited the new law that would give police the power to pull drivers over for not wearing a seat belt as a reason for record-low traffic fatalities in July. However, the Milwaukee County Sheriff is blogging about how the racial profiling data collection is a tool of exploitation by “race hustlers” and that ACLU has nothing better to do than to sue police.

Sheriff Clarke might have missed the report and recommendations issued last year by the Office of Justice Assistance and the Governor’s Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System. The commission included police, corrections and housing experts, judges, lawyers, academics, community and faith leaders. The report strongly recommended that “throughout the state, we must increase and improve the validity and reliability of data, e.g. collecting and making data available,” and that “appropriate state agencies should be directed to conduct a county-by-county baseline study of racial disparity using existing traffic citation and arrest data to determine (racial) disparity levels in the state.” The report is supposed to be a blueprint for effectively addressing our disproportionate minority incarceration rate in our state.

The reality is that racial profiling is one slice of the pie that makes Wisconsin one of the worst states for putting people of color behind bars. Anyone could suggest that a Governor’s commission and an OJA report is politically motivated. But disproportionate minority contact by law enforcement is a systemic problem. A systemic problem is bigger than a few racist cops. A systemic problem is bigger than one sheriff who feels politically targeted. And a systemic problem needs a systemic analysis. Buckle up drivers!

Gay and Lesbian Rights
The domestic partner registry began this week. In Dane County, 50 couples registered on the first day. County clerks had geared up for lines of couples waiting to register. While the Cap Times article says that applying for the registry has the same process as getting a marriage license, both the state Legislative Council and the ACLU of Wisconsin said that the registry does not equate marriage.

But organizations like the “Wisconsin Family Action” are still insisting that the domestic partnership provisions are “marriage-like” and have filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The ACLU of Wisconsin has committed to fighting a legal challenge to domestic partnerships in the state.

ACLU of WI Stands Up to WI Family Action’s Legal Attack on Domestic Partnerships

23 Jul

On the morning of Thursday, July 23, the anti-gay organization called Wisconsin Family Action filed a complaint about the domestic partner provisions in the state budget. The complaint was sent to the state Supreme Court asking for an original action, a move to skip right to the top of challenging the law through the court system and demand an injunction to stop the registry and benefits from being recognized. (Legal geek? Read the full complaint here.)

We’ve written before about how the domestic partnership registry and benefits for state workers is nowhere close to marriage. While the registry and benefits will help to make daily life feel more fair for real Wisconsin families, the limits to protections can hardly be considered “substantially similar” to marriage the way that state-recognized civil unions might.

The ACLU of Wisconsin today issued a statement on why the Supreme Court should deny the Wisconsin Family Action and Alliance Defense Fund petition. These groups not only believe that the domestic partnership provisions violate the 2006 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, they also say that it “redefines marriage” in a “sneaky assault.”

The petitioners’ reasons for seeking to skip the lower courts and go straight to the Wisconsin Supreme Court meet none of the tests required by the Court to take jurisdiction of this matter as an original action.

They think the facts are simple (i.e. domestic partnership registries and benefits are just like marriage and actually threaten heterosexual married couples). But they are actually asking the Supreme Court to have to decide whether the few protections that the legislature has provided to same-sex couples are ‘substantially similar’ to marriage. It will also have to decide whether the newly created status of domestic partner is ‘substantially similar’ to marriage. Both arguments require factual development which is what lower trial courts are for.

Wisconsin Family Action doesn’t just want to erase fairness for same-sex couples: they want to erase history. Three years ago, leading proponents of the anti-gay marriage amendment repeatedly admitted that domestic partnership benefits and protections are not the same as marriage. In February 2006, Wisconsin Family Action Executive Director Julaine Appling said in the Capital Times that “domestic partner benefits were not threatened” by the amendment. Earlier, 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. The memo put into writing that legal constructs by governments would be allowed: exactly what was signed into law by Governor Doyle this year.

Clearly this challenge will have an impact statewide, but it is not about maintaining existing marriages except in the minds of the petitioners. The domestic partnership registry and the benefits and protections associated with it, whether taken singly or as a whole, are nothing close to marriage. In fact, married Wisconsinites should ask themselves, would you trade your marriage and its hundreds of legal protections for the newly created domestic partnership? Of course not, because they aren’t the same.

The ACLU of Wisconsin anticipates that the State of Wisconsin will argue vigorously against acceptance of this petition and in defense of the domestic partnership registry. The ACLU of Wisconsin in April went on record offering to assist in any necessary defense of the domestic partnership registry.

The ACLU of Wisconsin is a membership organization devoted to the defense of the civil liberties and rights of all Wisconsin residents. Read the full statement from the ACLU of Wisconsin and from Fair Wisconsin.

Domestic Partner benefits lawsuit: the good, the bad and the hopeful

3 Jun

If you haven’t heard the news already, on Friday, May 29th a Wisconsin trial court dismissed the lawsuit that the ACLU of Wisconsin brought on behalf of state workers suing for health insurance and leave protections for their families and same-sex partners.

The bad news: the case was dismissed. The judge was bound by a prior decision from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals back in 1992.

The good news: the written decision is a testament to the unconstitutionality of denying state employees equality in worker benefits for their families.

The Court’s written opinion states: “The plaintiffs have offered a strong showing that the employment benefits in issue have been provided on a discriminatory basis. The defendants’ explanations offered for the continuing discrimination against these plaintiffs are unpersuasive and inadequate.”

“Losing doesn’t get any better than this,” said Larry Dupuis, Litigation Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “We knew we had an uphill battle in the trial court because of the earlier case. But the court agreed with us that discrimination based on sexual orientation should be subject to strict judicial review and that it is unconstitutional for the state to deny equal benefits.”

The Court also found that providing the benefits would not be barred by the anti-gay marriage amendment that passed in 2006.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in April 2005 on behalf of six lesbian state employees and their partners. The lawsuit charges that it is a violation of the state’s equal protection guarantees to deny lesbian and gay state employees access to the same health insurance and family leave protections that it provides to straight employees who are able to cover their spouses. The lawsuit was stalled for years because a number of Wisconsin municipalities tried to inject themselves into the lawsuit. The issue ultimately went up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ruled that they were not entitled to become a party to the litigation.

Governor Jim Doyle has repeatedly stated that he would like to provide lesbian and gay state employees with equal health insurance coverage. There is currently a provision in the Governor’s budget that successfully cleared the Joint Finance Committee. The budget is heading for the state Assembly for a vote. Identical budget bills need to be approved by the Assembly and the Senate before heading back to the Governor to sign. You can find out who represents you in the state Assembly and Senate and tell them how you feel about fairness for domestic partnerships.

“While we are heartened by the court’s decision, we urge the legislature to pass the domestic partner provision in the state budget so there will be no need to appeal,” added Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Our clients are forced to pay expensive prices for inferior health coverage and sometimes even to forego necessary care. They suffer every day this issue goes unresolved.”

Wisconsin Department of Corrections employee Jayne Dunnum and her partner, Robin Timm, pay nearly $450 a month for private insurance for Timm who works on the couple’s organic farm and food store in Platteville.

“We don’t care if it happens through the courts or the legislature. We just really need the health insurance coverage,” said Dunnum. “It’s a matter of basic fairness. I work just as hard has my straight colleagues and shouldn’t be denied the equal employment benefits.”

The case is Dunnum v. Department of Employee Trust Funds. The couples are represented by John Knight and Rose Saxe of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, Larry Dupuis of the ACLU of Wisconsin, and cooperating attorneys Linda Roberson and Christopher Krimmer of the Madison law firm Balisle & Roberson.

Biographical information for all of the couples, today’s decision, the complaint, and additional information are available at the ACLU LGBT Get Busy Get Equal case profiles page.