Updated March 12, 2006 Compiled & written by Mike Fitzpatrick
Read QNU: LGBT Wisconsin's Most Complete Daily Briefing
Surprises Characterize First Weeks Of
Wisconsin Marriage Equality Battle
Assembly Passage Triggers Fair Wisconsin's Week-Long “Road Trip” Travels To Seven Cities
Madison - If the first ten days of the fight to defeat the inclusion of an amendment to ban the legal recognition of all unmarried couples regardless of sexual orientation into the Wisconsin Constitution are a predictor of the 240 days to come, the state's voters are in for a wild ride. Statewide standing room only crowds opposing the amendment, mainstream religious figures speaking out in opposition and a leading conservative voice questioning the merits of the amendment surprised both supporters and opponents in the marriage equality battle.
Following the February 28 Assembly passage of the constitutional ban on civil unions and marriage, Action Wisconsin and Milwaukee Center Advocates launched Fair Wisconsin, the new statewide campaign to defeat the civil unions & marriage ban at the ballot box in November.
The state Assembly’s 62-31 vote has put the amendment on the November 7 state ballot. A majority vote would add 43 words to the constitution declaring the state recognizes only marriage between one man and one woman and does not grant a similar legal status to unmarried individuals, such as civil unions.
In a sign of growing momentum, supporters of fairness picked up eight votes in the Assembly. Four representatives switched to “No” votes, and four additional “No” votes came from new representatives.
One Republican, Rep. Gregg Underheim (R-Oshkosh), spoke out strongly against the ban. “What in fact it is is, anti–constitutional,” Underheim said. “because what we’re doing today, will change the nature of the constitution we have written.”
“In virtually no other area do constitutions prohibit private individuals from engaging in any activity. We are taking a document which has protected people from their government and saying, ‘We’re changing the character of that document,’ “ Underheim added.
Just hours after the passage, the Fair Wisconsin campaign launched, announcing a kick-off Madison press conference. “For the past 600 days, we’ve been having conversations with tens of thousands of Wisconsin voters about the civil unions and marriage ban,”Fair Wisconsin campaign manager Mike Tate said in announcing the statewide kick-off. “We have already ramped up our efforts and will continue to do so every single day for the next 252 days.”
“Today we gained eight votes in the Assembly, and tomorrow we’ll gain 100 votes in Eau Claire, and the next day 500 votes in Appleton,” Tate said. “Every day we talk about the ban to the fair-minded and independent voters of Wisconsin, we gain votes. We will be the first state in the nation to defeat one of these bans.”
In the last ten days, Fair Wisconsin held campaign kick-off trainings in every region of the state to introduce the campaign. The events were open to local media and highlighted plans for the coming months, the ongoing work of the Fair Wisconsin Action Networks, and diverse local people who oppose the ban, including business leaders, independents, Republicans, and clergy. The events were held in Madison on March 1; Milwaukee, March 2; Appleton, March 6; Wausau, March 7; La Crosse, March 8; Eau Claire, March 9; and Superior, March 10.
Over a thousand people collectively attended the “road trip” styled events, held in libraries, churches, and - in Eau Claire - a cathedral. In some cases, crowds attending the events overflowed the pre-arranged spaces. In Appleton, partitions were removed to expand the multi-use conference area where the event was held. Advisories about each event had been sent to local media and generated dozens of positive print and broadcast stories and editorials about the Fair Wisconsin efforts.
Governor Paints Amendment As Political “Game”
Governor Doyle also sounded off on the amendment March 9, saying his political opponents were playing games by putting a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions on the November ballot. Doyle met with the editors and publisher of the Portage Daily Register and the Baraboo News Republic to discuss a variety of topics before attending an afternoon event that was part of the “Capital for the Day” festivities.
Doyle said current law was “as clear as it could be” - marriage is between a husband and a wife. “When I was attorney general I interpreted it to mean like most people interpret, that means a man and a woman,” he said. “This isn’t about gay marriage, which is already prohibited.”
Doyle characterized the amendment as a political ploy. “Everybody knows that’s the purpose of it. If they (the GOP-controlled Assembly) had passed it in January, it would have been on the April ballot. That’s fine. That’s the game they’re playing,” he said.
Doyle also noted that part of the referendum concerned him because it would prevent both same-sex and opposite-sex couples from having a legally recognized union other than marriage. The amendment would prevent people from having a longtime partner make medical decisions for them or leaving the partner money in a way a spouse would receive it.
Doyle also noted the marriage equality ban issue was out of step with most Wisconsin voters. “When I get around the state, they’re not talking to me about gay marriage,” he said. “They’re talking to me about jobs and the educational system and how to make health care more affordable.”
Yikes! Sykes Writes Against The Amendment
Amendment supporters also likely were stunned when a leading Milwaukee conservative talk show host wrote he was “undecided” about the marriage and civil union ban. WTMJ’s Charlie Sykes, in a piece published March 9 in the alternative Madison weekly Isthmus wrote “There’s a reason this November’s vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage may be defeated: Conservatives who, like me, are undecided.”
“Thoughtful conservatives reply: ‘Say what?’,” Sykes continued, noting UW Law professor Ann Althouse’s observation that amendment’s second sentence “goes beyond what is needed to satisfy traditionalists and takes a gratuitous swipe at benefits currently enjoyed by real families here in the state.”
Sykes noted the irony that amendment supporters, who claim the primary reason they pushed for the amendment was judicial activism, also claim they are comfortable letting the same courts decide the impact of the amendment’s vague second half. “...that is precisely the strongest argument for the amendment: marriage will be redefined one way or another: either by black-robed activists or by the public. So it’s a problem if the public is unclear what the definition actually means and if it gets thrown back to the courts anyway,” Sykes wrote.
Sykes also echoed Rep. Underheim’s misgivings about the amendment. “Conservatives also believe that, as a rule, constitutions should limit the powers of government, not of individuals,” he wrote.
Sykes also addressed the basic questions of marriage equality in his piece. “Exactly how does allowing gays to enter into legal, monogamous relationships undermine the institution of marriage? Isn’t in society’s interest to foster and recognize such stable relationships? And why would that be something that conservatives would oppose?,” he argued.
Sykes also took a shot at one of the amendment’s most outspoken supporters. “Supporters of the amendment would do well to take some of their wingnuts to the side. And leave them there. This includes, anti-gay mouth-frothers like the Rev. Ralph Ovadal, the sponsor of conferences on what he calls ‘Homo-Fascism.’ Ovadal and his supporters not only oppose gays, they also have it in for the pope,” Sykes noted.
Sykes also cautioned amendment opponents about their own preconceptions and rhetoric. “A bigger problem for the supporters of gay marriage is their own temptation to assume that all their opponents are wingnuts like Ovadal,” he wrote. “But calling your opponents bigots or assuming that supporters of the amendment ‘hate’ gays will not win any converts. Nor will attacking the traditional teachings of mainline churches. So it cuts both ways.”
FRI’s Appling Gets A Reality Check
However, it was public mainline church opposition to the marriage equality ban on March 4 that gave Family Research Institute of Wisconsin Executive Director Julaine Appling a self-described “reality check.” Just days after gloating to the state’s mainstream press that all of the opposition to amendment was “Madison-based,” Appling attended an event at the University of Wisconsin in Marshfield that featured nationally-syndicated lesbian columnist Deb Price. There she encountered a capacity crowd of mostly non-gay attendees that overwhelmingly expressed their opposition to the amendment.
In her weekly “Wisconsin Family Connection”broadcast on March 6 Appling described her epiphany. “...Reality struck when a Presbyterian pastor disclosed himself and his position on homosexuals - for and affirming of - and the amendment – 100% against. This pastor mentioned there were several members of the area clergy at the program who agreed with him. Ah, yes, reality: people who are against the marriage amendment and are openly affirming and accepting of homosexuality are more than willing to speak up and to work hard to defeat the amendment,” Appling said, verbally adding that she needed to make a mental note to “find pastors and churches anywhere who will speak up on this issue.”
Appling was also dumfounded by the early strength of the opposition to the amendment. “100 people on a small UW-System campus in a key Central Wisconsin city on a Saturday night in early March was really a pretty impressive crowd. It was apparent from the comments and questions during Ms. Price’s talk and by the general tenor after the program that these were people who were energized and ready to do what was necessary to defeat the amendment,” Appling said, again adding she needed to “keep persevering in amassing an army to win at the ballot box in November.”
Military tactics involving Christian soldiers notwithstanding, Appling wrapped up her “reality check” message by sharing that she knew “our omnipresent, omniscient God is greater than any campaign against His plan for marriage and family.”
“...My head-on reality-check Saturday night is a good reminder for all of us that when it comes to preserving God’s plan for marriage and family in Wisconsin, we can’t take anything for granted,” Appling concluded. “Those who want to redefine marriage will be out walking, talking, advertising and rallying.”
Appling’s words may have warmed the spirit of her listeners on the state’s Christian radio stations, but similar rhetoric found on FRI’s highly-touted DVD on the amendment turned off other people of faith. Dozens of pastors who received the six-minute DVD, found its message so offensive they have joined the Fair Wisconsin campaign.
At a speaker’s training held at Preble Park Presbyterian Church March 8 in Green Bay, both the host pastor and a minister from an Oconto Quaker congregation cited the DVD as a key reason why they were moved to actively oppose the ban. “That Family Research DVD exhorted me to take action,” one of the pastors said. “That’s why I’m here: to learn how to talk more effectively against this referendum.”
If the first two weeks of the battle are a harbinger of its coming campaign, Fair Wisconsin’s voice will be both loud and nearly omnipresent.