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Wisconsin Democrats propose protections for same-sex marriages

Legislation would remove language in state Constitution defining marriage as between 'one man and one woman'

Gov. Tony Evers marked the beginning of Pride Month by raising the Pride Flag at the state Capitol.
The Pride Flag flies at the Wisconsin State Capitol, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Madison, Wis. Morry Gash/AP Photo

One year after a federal law was passed to protect same-sex marriages, Wisconsin Democrats announced they’ll introduce legislation to do the same at the state level.

One proposal would remove language in Wisconsin’s constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman. The other would update state family and marital laws to include same-sex marriages.

The legislation was announced Wednesday, on the one-year anniversary of the passage of the federal Respect for Marriage Act, which codifies same-sex and interracial marriages in the event that U.S. Supreme Court cases protecting those institutions are overturned.

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The Wisconsin legislation’s authors say that, although same-sex marriage is the law of the land, aspects of Wisconsin family law still presume that any married couple comprises a man and a woman. The proposal would replace that language with gender-neutral references to “spouses.”

“There are many examples in our state statutes that have these outdated references, including things as mundane as a husband-and-wife hunting or fishing license, and things as critical to families as insurance coverage, retirement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,” said state Sen. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, who authored the bill.

The changes would especially affect parental rights, which Spreitzer said can be obfuscated by state law’s current gender-specific language. The bill would allow married couples to jointly adopt children and to jointly claim a child conceived through artificial insemination. And it would change language about how to establish “paternity” to “parentage,” for purposes of determining which adults are legally the parents of a child.

A separate proposal would remove language from the state constitution that was inserted in 2006 defining marriage as being only between “one man and one woman.”

Although that language is unenforceable because of the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, which codified same-sex marriage into federal law, it sends an unwelcoming message, said state Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee.

An openly gay lawmaker, Carpenter recalled when the constitution was first changed to proactively exclude same-sex marriage.

“One of the worst days in the Legislature was when that constitutional amendment passed in 2006, and some of my colleagues came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Don’t take it personal,’” he said. “It’s been personal, and it’s been in our constitution for about 17 years and it’s time to repeal it.”

Amending the state constitution again would require that the plan be passed through two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and then go before voters.

“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,” Carpenter said. “It’s time to pass a constitutional amendment that brings back a person’s civil rights.”

LGBTQ+ advocates across the country have worked to codify same-sex marriage into their state laws after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down federal abortion protections last summer. They argue that the same fate could befall federal marriage equality, sending the legality of people’s marriages back to the states.

If that happened, the federal Respect for Marriage Act — of which Wisconsin’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin was a lead sponsor — would offer some protection. It would require states to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages if they were performed in places that legally allow such marriages, even if the couple lives in a state that does not allow them.

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