Same-sex couples in Wisconsin joined others throughout the country on Monday in filing a lawsuit seeking same-sex marriage, but efforts there are unique because of the penalties for marrying in another jurisdiction.
The litigation seeks not only to overturn the state’s 2006 constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, but also to enjoin state official from enforcing a “marriage evasion law” prohibiting couples — gay and straight — from going elsewhere to marry if the marriage would be prohibited in the state.
The penalties of violating the marriage evasion law in Wisconsin, which is the only state to have such a statute, include up to $10,000 in fines and nine months in prison.
For Marie Carlson, one-half of one of the couples participating in the lawsuit, the marriage evasion law is of concern as she seeks recognition of her relationship with Charvonne Kemp.
“It’s illegal in the state Wisconsin to go another state and get married if you live here,” Carlson said. “I know that it’s not really all that enforced; it’s still something that hangs over your head.”
The marriage evasion law is particularly problematic for same-sex couples in Wisconsin because the Obama administration in most cases has elected to recognize same-sex marriages even if the state doesn’t recognize them — provided these couples are able to marry in a jurisdiction that allows it.
John Knight, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT project, called the marriage evasion law a “Catch-22” for same-sex couples living in Wisconsin who want to marry.
“Wisconsin is unique in that sense, and so we think that argument particularly exemplifies the harm or the animus toward same-sex couples in some parts of the country,” Knight said.
But for Kemp, it’s not the fear of prosecution for marrying elsewhere that compels her to seek the right marry in Wisconsin, but the ability to wed in the state where she’s lived with her partner for seven years and raised two sons.
“We’re completely in love, and we’d like to be married in the state that we live in,” Kemp said. “We do have options where we could obviously leave the state and go to other states and get married, but we want to be legally recognized where we live.”
The lawsuit, Wolf and Schumacher v. Walker, was filed by the ACLU, the ACLU of Wisconsin and Mayer Brown LLP and is pending before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
Like other lawsuits filed throughout the country, the 29-page complaint filed by the groups in Wisconsin alleges the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violates equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Although Wisconsin and this country have taken some steps to reduce discrimination against lesbians and gays, Wisconsin’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples is a striking and continuing vestige of the long history of discrimination toward lesbians and gay men,” the complaint says.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four same-sex couples seeking to marry in Wisconsin. Along with Kemp and Carlson, who reside in Milwaukee, they are: Virginia Wolf and Carol Schumacher, who reside in Eau Claire, Wis.; Roy Badger and Garth Wangemann, who live in Milwaukee; and Judith “Judi” Trampf and Katharina “Katy” Heyning, who live in Madison.
Although Wisconsin offers same-sex couples the ability to join in a domestic partnership, enacted in the state in 2009, they don’t offer same the legal rights as marriages.
Carlson said the union isn’t enough because that union provides little assistance beyond certain health insurance benefits — and that’s only if the insurance company recognizes the partnership.
“It also goes along with the fact that last like year, Charvonne’s mother passed away, and we all had to go to New Jersey for a week,” Carlson said. “I had to use vacation time because…the company I work for didn’t recognize she was legally my partner, so I didn’t get bereavement to be able to go. So, I had to use a week of my vacation.”
The office of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) didn’t immediately respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the lawsuit.
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, however, pledged in a statement to the Blade that he would the defend the marriage amendment.
“This constitutional amendment was approved by a large majority of Wisconsin residents,” Van Hollen said. “I believe the amendment is constitutional, and I will vigorously defend it.”
The Wisconsin litigation is among 40 pending lawsuits in 22 states throughout the country seeking marriage rights for gay couples.
Amid expectations that one will soon reach the U.S. Supreme Court for a final ruling on marriage equality, Knight said it’s possible, but he wouldn’t bet on it.
“It’s one of the possibilities it might go to the Supreme Court, but the chance of that in light of all the other cases out there is probably fairly small,” Knight said. “But it could be.”
Nonetheless, if Walker continues to fight the lawsuit and a high court ruling doesn’t happen before the case is resolved, Kemp said she’s willing to take her case to the Supreme Court to fight for marriage rights across the country if necessary.
“I’m willing to go to the Supreme Court to fight for the right for everyone to be able to get married if that’s what they choose to do,” Kemp said. “It’s about marriage equality for all, not marriage equality for some, or for just us.”
For Kemp, the ability to marry in Wisconsin is not just about the legal rights that marriage would afford, but the dignity of having the access to the same union as other couples.
“However, I want to be married just like everyone else. I want it to be legal, not just for if one of us should get sick and having rights where we’re in the hospital with the other one, but also taxes, all the things that come with marriage, good and bad,” Kemp said.