MADISON, Wis. The state Senate approved a proposed amendment to ban gay marriage and Vermont-style civil unions Wednesday over objections it could strip unmarried couples of health care benefits and other legal recognitions.
Supporters countered those concerns were overblown and maintained the amendment would ensure marriage in Wisconsin would remain a union between one man and one woman while allowing room for future lawmakers to grant limited benefits to unmarried couples.
The amendment prevents “judges or the state from creating marriage in another name and granting identical benefits” to unmarried couples, said amendment sponsor Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
The Senate voted 19-14 to approve the amendment, leaving only a vote in the Assembly before the proposal could go to the public for a final vote. Lawmakers there are expected to pass it easily when they take it up after the first of the year, with an expected statewide referendum in November.
Wisconsin law already defines marriage as a union between a man and a wife. The proposed amendment states: Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state.
Much of Wednesday’s debate centered on the second sentence.
Sen. Tim Carpenter, one of two openly gay state lawmakers, tried to alter the amendment to strip that language, maintaining it would have an impact far beyond its intended purpose. That includes impacting the ability of unmarried couples to visit partners in the hospital, their inheritance rights and their access to health care benefits.
After lawmakers rejected those moves, he proposed amendments to prohibit divorcees and adulterers from marrying, which he argued was a much greater threat to the institution of marriage than a union between two gay people.
“The second sentence creates second-class citizens,” said Carpenter, D-Milwaukee.
Both sides of the debate offered up legal opinions to bolster their arguments on the second half of the amendment.
Opponents pointed to a memo from Dane County’s corporation counsel arguing the amendment would potentially endanger the domestic partner benefits the county offers its employees. Supporters cited a memo by one of the Legislature’s lawyers that argued that was unlikely.
Fitzgerald said the courts could ultimately decide those questions if the amendment becomes law.
Questions over civil unions are likely to be a main thrust of debate over the next year leading up to the expected vote in November.
Julaine Appling, executive director of the pro-amendment Family Research Institute of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Coalition for Traditional Marriage, said there is no question the amendment would prohibit civil unions like
those allowed under Vermont law. There, civil unions grant gay couples all of the more than 300 rights available under state law to married couples.
Appling argued that’s much different than Dane County’s domestic partner benefits or the health care coverage Madison schools offer gay couples.
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