Law changes proposed to reflect same-sex marriages and families

By: - July 6, 2021 3:29 pm
Two men with a baby in a stroller

Photo by Serge Zykov via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

A bill circulating in the Wisconsin Legislature seeks to change language in the statutes to recognize same-sex couples and parents. The memo summarizing the bill begins with these quotes by Justice Anthony Kennedy from the landmark decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, that legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.”

“Marriage … affords the permanency and stability important to children’s best interests.” 

The bill, named the Marriage and Family Equality Act, is authored by Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) and  Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), along with other members of the LGBTQ Caucus. Spreitzer’s office confirmed that he has introduced similar bills in the three previous sessions, but none of these efforts have made it to a vote in the Republian-controlled Legislature.

As of press time not a single Republican had signed on to the bill.

The issue of same-sex marriage, which a Gallup poll last month showed 70% of Americans favor, with majority of Republicans expressing support, is often cited as one of the issues where majority support by Wisconsin residents is not reflected in action by the Legislature because of gerrymandered maps.

The act would update Wisconsin laws to use gender-neutral language, which has not changed since same-sex marriage became legal in Wisconsin in June 2014. (The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed same-sex couple’s right to marry nationwide one year later.)

Current statutes, point out the sponsors of the Marriage and Family Equality Act, have yet to catch up with the law, creating legal challenges and difficulties for some families due to outdated language that refers to “husbands and wives” and “mothers and fathers.”

“The Obergefell decision requires that our statutes be read in a gender-neutral way so that same-sex and different-sex couples are treated equally under the law,” write the sponsoring legislators. “We strongly believe that our statutes should reflect this core value.”

 That discrepancy is not only confusing and outdated — the lack of straightforward legal guidance for same-sex couples has been particularly difficult when it comes to securing equal parental rights. The bill would replace “husband and wife” with “spouse” or “spouses” in the state statutes.

“A lack of clear guidance in statutes means same-sex couples often need to go to court to have their rights secured, which leads to considerable legal costs for both families and the state of Wisconsin,” the sponsors’ memo arguing for the bill continues. “Legally married same-sex couples should not have to pay a lawyer and go to court to secure parental rights to their children. Children whose parents are unable to take these steps should not be denied access to a parent. Furthermore, the state of Wisconsin should not be spending tax dollars to litigate outdated and unenforceable statutes.”

Areas of the statutes that would be updated also remove references to  “paternity,” “mothers” and “fathers.” This not only applies to parent and family law, it also includes insurance law, death benefits, retirement, medical assistance and more.

Some of the most important updates, where confusion has been generated, include the right for married couples to jointly adopt children or one spouse to adopt the children of their spouse. The changes also affect the right to have a child through artificial insemination and recognize transgender and non-binary parents. 

The co-sponsorship memo concludes: “By updating state statutes to remove gendered references … we will ensure that all Wisconsin families are recognized.”


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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.