The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions Wednesday in a unanimous ruling that disappointed gay rights advocates.
The court's 7-0 ruling concluded that the constitutional amendment was properly put to voters in a statewide referendum in 2006. Justices rejected a lawsuit that claimed the amendment violated a rule limiting constitutional amendments to a single subject.
The question asked voters whether marriage should be limited to one man and one woman and whether to outlaw any "legal status identical or substantially similar" to marriage for same-sex couples. Nearly 60 percent of voters approved.
The lawsuit, filed by a voter opposed to the amendment, argued that the amendment consisted of two questions that could have reached different results had they been asked separately: whether to ban gay marriage, and whether to ban civil unions. Polling showed greater support for civil unions in which same-sex couples are granted marriage rights.
Writing for the court, Justice Michael Gableman rejected that argument. He said both parts of the question had the same general subject: preserving the current legal definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.
"The first sentence preserves the one man-one woman character of marriage by so limiting marriages entered into or recognized in Wisconsin," Gableman wrote. "The second sentence, by its plain terms, ensures that no legislature, court or any other government entity can get around the first sentence" by recognizing unions of same-sex couples, he wrote.
William McConkey, the Baileys Harbor man who brought the lawsuit, called the decision a blow to thousands of gays and lesbians. McConkey, a college instructor and father of a gay daughter, said the notion that banning same-sex unions protects traditional marriage is "absurd and illogical under all examinations."
"The decision unbelievably states that marriage and civil unions are the same thing. The rest of the world knows that they are not," he said. "Wisconsin now has its Dred Scott decision," he said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1857 ruling that found blacks were not citizens and upheld slavery.
But the decision does not affect Wisconsin's domestic partnership registry, which was signed into law by Gov. Jim Doyle last year. Same-sex couples who sign up receive a limited number of the same legal rights as spouses, including hospital visitation, inheritance, and medical leave rights.
Fair Wisconsin, the state's largest gay rights group, said the decision underscored the importance of the registry in giving same-sex couples basic protections. The group said it was disappointed in the ruling and would work toward "a legislative repeal of this discriminatory amendment."
The Wisconsin Family Council, a social conservative group which led the campaign to adopt the amendment, praised the court for rejecting "a sneaky attempt to tear down what the voters clearly wanted."
"Marriage and the will of the people are the clear winners in this decision," said Julaine Appling, the group's president.
Gableman said his opinion was not a decision on whether the amendment is good public policy and should have no impact on its interpretation or application. He said decades of court precedent related to constitutional referendum questions guided his conclusion.
He said past Supreme Court decisions gave lawmakers, who must approve proposed constitutional changes in two consecutive sessions before they go on the ballot, wide discretion in drafting their language. Amendments can contain multiple propositions as long as they "carry out one general purpose and are connected with one subject," he wrote.
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen had defended the amendment, arguing McConkey did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit. Van Hollen argued McConkey suffered no injury because he would have voted "no" on both propositions.
Gableman agreed McConkey's "alleged injury is difficult to define," but said the court decided to address the merits because of the case's significance. A Dane County judge had dismissed McConkey's lawsuit in 2008, and the court agreed to hear the case last year.