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Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009

Doublespeak on Domestic Partnerships

Did conservatives lie to the voters?

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Three years ago, before the majority of the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment that prohibited same-sex marriage and civil unions, supporters argued that the ban only affected the legal status of those two relationships.

In contrast, domestic partnerships and the benefits granted by them would still be legal in the state, they said before the November 2006 vote.

Take, for example, state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald’s argument on Nov. 29, 2005, when he reassured undecided voters that supporting the ban didn’t mean undoing existing legal protections for domestic partners or banning them in the future.

“[The proposed constitutional amendment] would not prohibit state or local governments or a private entity from setting up a legal construct to provide privileges or benefits such as health insurance benefits, pension benefits, joint tax return filing or hospital visitation to same-sex or unmarried couples,” the Republican from Juneau wrote.

Julaine Appling, then the head of the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin, had this to say on Oct. 16, 2006, about which benefits would still be legal if a ban were passed: “They [same-sex couples] can go to an attorney to get a will drafted, buy joint land, get a judiciary power of attorney, hospital visitation and guardianship for children. These benefits are not directly tied to marriage. They are free to enter into them regardless of legal status of marriage.”

In fact, these assurances weren’t limited to supporters of the same-sex marriage ban. Peg Lautenschlager, then the attorney general, wrote an opinion about the status of domestic partnerships under the ban. Lautenschlager wrote: “I have concluded that this provision [the amendment] does not restrict the ability of governmental bodies to protect domestic partners from discrimination, or the ability of either governmental or private employers to provide benefits to the domestic partners of their employees.”

Doyle’s Proposal, Conservative Blowback

Flash forward to last week, when Gov. Jim Doyle announced his plans for county-level domestic partnership registries, limited legal protections for registered partners and, separately, health care coverage for domestic partners of state employees.

The conservatives who reassured voters that domestic partnerships would still be legal in Wisconsin have changed their tune. Now, they say, the ban covers domestic partnerships and Doyle’s proposal is unconstitutional.

Here’s Julaine Appling last week: “From property transfers to inheritance to health care coverage, [Doyle’s] plan gives people in ‘committed relationships’ the same benefits heretofore reserved for married couples, which by law in Wisconsin is restricted to one man and one woman.”

It seems that Appling is having a little change of heart, now that Doyle is calling her bluff.

Doyle’s proposal would confer 43 legal protections on committed-butnot-married couples, such as hospital visitation rights, end-of-life decisions and family leave options. Registered domestic partners would not receive any tax protections, nor would they be able to file joint tax returns.

A married couple has about 200 protections in the state, and more than 1,000 at the federal level.

Katie Belanger, legislative director for Fair Wisconsin, said that these benefits don’t meet the definition of “marriage” or “civil unions” and therefore domestic partnerships have not been banned under the constitutional amendment. “It’s important that caring, committed couples have some protection under the law,” Belanger said.

Ray Vahey, board member of Center Advocates in Milwaukee, said Appling’s recent statements are cynical and misleading and the domestic partnership benefits, as limited as they are, represent a small social justice victory. “There is no room in this country for second-class citizens,” Vahey said.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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