MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A group of same-sex couples filed a federal lawsuit Monday challenging Wisconsin's ban on gay marriage, arguing the prohibition is unconstitutional and denies them civil rights married couples enjoy.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on the couples' behalf in federal court in Madison, extending the organization's national push for gay marriage rights. Larry Dupuis, an attorney with the organization, said gay marriage is becoming more accepted, pointing to a U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits and a federal judge in December overturned a same-sex marriage ban in conservative Utah.
"Obviously, there has been momentum," Dupuis told reporters during a news conference to announce the Wisconsin lawsuit. "The climate is changing across the country."
The lawsuit names Gov. Scott Walker and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, both Republicans, as defendants. A Walker spokesman didn't immediately return a message. Van Hollen said in a statement he believes the ban is legal and promised to "vigorously" defend it. He didn't elaborate.
Wisconsin voters attached an amendment to the state constitution in 2006 banning gay marriage or anything substantially similar. Wisconsin has offered domestic registry that affords same sex couples who join it a host of legal rights since 2009, but the state Supreme Court is currently weighing whether the list violates the amendment.
The new federal lawsuit alleges the amendment violates the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection and due process clauses, saying the prohibition deprives same-sex couples of legal protections afforded married couples simply because of their sex. The domestic partner registry is "a mundane entryway to an extremely limited subset of benefits" that doesn't afford couples the recognition of marriage, the lawsuit added.
What's more, the lawsuit said, gay couples in Wisconsin can't get married in another state and return to Wisconsin legally; under state law, anyone who marries in another state to circumvent Wisconsin statutes can face up to $10,000 in fines and nine months in jail. John Knight, an ACLU attorney who specializes in gay rights litigation, said he doesn't know of anyone who has been prosecuted under the law but he's not aware of such a sanction anywhere else in the country.
"Wisconsin's refusal to recognize these Plaintiffs' committed relationships, its elimination of even the possibility of seeking redress through the state legislature, and the possibility of criminal prosecution for doing nothing more than marrying the person they love has led these Plaintiffs' to seek relief from this Court," the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit outlines the lives of three same-sex couples in Wisconsin who say the amendment denies them rights and prevents them from fully celebrating their love for one another.
Carol Schumacher, 60, and her partner, Virginia Wolf, 74, who live in Eau Claire, got married in Minnesota last year and are now worried some district attorney will come after them. Judi Trampf, 53, and Katy Heyning, 51, of Madison, claimed a hospital in New Orleans wouldn't recognize Trampf's power of attorney after Heyning went into a seizure during a 2002 trip to the city. Charvonne Kemp, 43, and Marie Carlson, 48, of Milwaukee, said they're domestic partners but want to get married so other people understand what their love means.
"We intend to fight as far as we have to go until there's a day I can walk down the aisle with my partner and my love," Carlson told reporters at the news conference.
Knight said the ACLU has filed similar lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon. Dupuis said during the news conference 48 lawsuits seeking gay marriage rights have been filed in about 20 states.
Fair Wisconsin, the state's largest gay rights group, is defending the state's domestic registry. The group's president, Katie Belanger, issued a statement saying the organization would watch the ACLU case closely but it will take more work to create real equality for gay people.
Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, the group challenging the registry, said the new lawsuit simply mirrors what the ACLU has been doing in other states. She said her group likely will attempt to join the federal lawsuit and help defend the gay marriage ban.
"This organization will continue to defend, strength and promote the institution of traditional marriage with every fiber ... we have," Appling said in an interview. "If the rule of law is applied ... we prevail."