Wisconsin's Walker refuses to defend gay rights law

MILWAUKEE Wed May 18, 2011 5:30pm EDT

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MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - A judge may rule next month on Governor Scott Walker's refusal to defend a Wisconsin law giving same sex couples hospital visiting rights.

The law enacted under then-Governor Jim Doyle in 2009 created registries to give same-sex couples some rights and benefits. These include hospital visits, family medical leave to care for a stricken partner, health benefits under a partner's insurance and the right to inherit assets when a partner dies.

Wisconsin Family Action, an anti-gay rights group, argued in a 2010 lawsuit that the registries violated a 2006 state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Republican attorney general J.B. Van Hollen agreed, and Doyle responded by hiring another attorney, Lester Pines, to defend the state.

But since Republican Walker was elected last year, he fired Pines, and last week asked Dane County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Moeser to release the state from its obligation to defend the law, citing the attorney general's opinion.

"The Attorney General has said he believes that this legislation is unconstitutional." said Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Walker. "We don't believe it is in the best interest of the state and its taxpayers to spend additional time and resources defending the legislation."

About 1,700 gay couples have registered since the law took effect in August 2009, said Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, a Madison-based gay rights advocacy organization.

Pines, who believes the law is constitutional, said the attorney general's opinion appeared ideologically based.

"When you have an attorney general who doesn't defend laws because he doesn't like them, that's a very dangerous situation..." Pines said. "One of your responsibilities as an elected official of the state is to defend laws passed by the legislature."

Pines said he believed Moeser could rule in June. It comes down to whether a presumption of constitutionality can be overcome beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.

(Writing and reporting by John Rondy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, David Bailey and Greg McCune)

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