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  WINDY CITY TIMES

WICONSIN FACES TOUGH MARRIAGE FIGHT
by Amy Wooten
2005-12-07

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Wisconsin is fighting early and strong against an amendment banning equal protection for same-sex couples.

The amendment is likely to be on the November 2006 statewide ballot. The amendment was first introduced in January 2004. It passed in the legislature last session, but needs to pass this session before voters can decide. If the Wisconsin state legislature passes the amendment in this session, it will go before voters during the Nov. 7, 2006 statewide election.

Action Wisconsin is one of leading organizations for the fight against the ban, and plans to reach out to 1 million of the expected 2 million voters.

The proposed ban reads, '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.'

The ban, formally reintroduced last month, is known as AJR67 for the Assembly and SJR53 for the Senate. Action Wisconsin Executive Director Christopher Ott said his organization is trying to stop the bill in the state legislature. However, 'We have to assume, unfortunately, that this will pass,' Ott said. 'If we don't, then we just won't have time to prepare.'

Action Wisconsin and Milwaukee partner Center Advocates have been leading a statewide campaign against the amendment. For two years, both groups have been carrying out aggressive voter education programs around the issue, including lobbying, door and phone canvassing, reaching out to the religious community and coalition-building with non-gay state organizations. Having non-gay allies is 'absolutely critical,' Ott said. 'The LGBT community can't do this on our own.'

Fundraising is another key component to the campaign, Ott added. 'We really want to make this a major effort.'

Reaching out to the religious community is another key component of the campaign, and the outcomes so far have been positive. According to Patrick Flaherty, the director of community relations for Milwaukee Center Advocates, around 40 ministers and rabbis just in the Milwaukee area have joined their faith caucus in the coalition against the ban.

'It's important that no one side sort of owns the moral high ground in this issue,' Flaherty said. 'And it reminds people that what we are talking about is access to a government license that provides hundreds of rights and responsibilities.'

Curt Anderson, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Madison, said he is not surprised by the amount of support within the faith community. 'I think the more the word gets out, the more people will realize that there are broader and better ways to be Christian on this issue,' said Anderson, one of the lead spokespeople for Christians for Equality.

So far, nine religious organizations have passed resolutions against the ban on civil unions and marriage in Wisconsin. Anderson feels that it is crucial to get the faith community involved in the fight. 'I think it's really important because much of the original push for this came from what's called the Religious Right,' he said. 'And for a long time, they were the only, or virtually the only, faith voice that was speaking. I think it's important that we share a different message, and we let people know who we are.'

Within the faith community, there is currently an emphasis on education, Anderson added. Between now and November 2006, the goal is to have a series of forums, conferences and debates across the state in order to reach faith communities.

As organizations such as Action Wisconsin and Center Advocates do door-to-door canvassing and making phone calls to voters, they have found that most people have been very receptive. 'By and large, when people find out about the full scope of the ban and understand how it's actually going to roll back existing protections and gay people's ability to take care of their families, they move our way,' Flaherty said. And public education of this sort, Flaherty said, is crucial.

'Education has to happen person-to-person,' he added. 'For public opinion to shift, it means that gay and lesbian people, for better or for worse, have a special obligation to talk to their family members, to their coworkers, to their non-gay friends about this and make it real about how this amendment is going to hurt them.'

The Human Rights Campaign is hopeful that Wisconsin might become the first state to defeat such an amendment. In July, HRC and the Milwaukee-based Brico Fund contributed $125,000 to Action Wisconsin and Center Advocates. It is important to counteract these amendments across the nation with good grassroots organizing and organizing within the religious community, HRC Marriage Project Director Seth Kilbourne said. Wisconsin appears to be doing just that.

'I think that the folks in Wisconsin at Action Wisconsin and [ Center Advocates ] are preparing early, and they are getting started on the public education and the grassroots organizing that needs to happen in order to defeat this amendment,' said Kilbourne.

Though Wisconsin, like other states facing battles in 2006, is facing a 'steep, uphill battle,' said Kilbourne, the state is off to a good start. 'The prohibition on marriage and civil unions in Wisconsin, I think, is a message that we definitely need to get out to voters that this could harm real families in a very significant way by denying marriage, but also other protections that may be afforded same-sex couples.'

In 1982, Wisconsin was the first state in the U.S. to pass a nondiscrimination law that includes sexual orientation. It is also the only state with a veto still standing against the Defense of Marriage Act. In addition to that milestone, having one of the first openly gay non-incumbants elected to Congress and the governor's veto the Defense of Marriage Act in 2003 adds to Ott's optimism that Wisconsin can beat the amendment.

Also, having time on their side adds to the positive outlook. 'Other states have only had a few months, and we've been working on this for a year and half,' Ott added.

'It's going to be a huge amount of work, but we think our odds are pretty good that Wisconsin could be the first, or one of the first, states to stop one of these,' Ott said.

_____

A fired-up crowd jammed a hearing room Nov. 29 at the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison to discuss a constitutional amendment that would ban marriage rights for gay couples, according to Gay.com .

Even before the testimony in front of the two legislative committees could begin, opponents made sure their voices were heard. During the Pledge of Allegiance, they shouted 'for all' after the 'liberty and justice' part. Hundreds gathered on each side of the debate during the hearing, a step toward the legislature's mandatory second vote on the amendment. The Republican-controlled assembly first approved the amendment in 2004; however, under Wisconsin law, the legislature must pass any amendment to the state Constitution in two consecutive sessions.

On occasion, supporters of the amendment used some unusual arguments. For example, co-author Mark Gundrum, R-New Berlin, told the committees that Wisconsin needed the amendment in part to keep teens from being confused. He also said society needed to be protected from gay parents who could not provide 'gender equality' for their children.

On the flip side, opponents of the amendment said that it would solidify discrimination.

They argued it would prohibit state and local governments from providing domestic-partnership benefits.


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