Wisconsin could be key in gay marriage debate


When it comes to statewide votes on gay marriage, the score so far is 20-0 in favor of keeping it a one-man, one-woman institution.

If there’s a chance to break the streak on Nov. 7, it might be in Wisconsin, where activists believe that support from unions, college students and church leaders — coupled with hoped-for conservative apathy — could enable them to finally overcome the string of losses.

Among the hopeful are Debbie Knepke and Candice Hackbarth, devoted partners for nine years, raising a 3-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son in pleasant Milwaukee neighborhood. They have joined some 8,000 other volunteers in a bid to defeat a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions.

"It makes us mad that the Christian conservatives are so against us," said Knepke, 41. "If they came into our house, they’d find we’re no different from anybody else. We’re every single thing they consider good parents to be."

Eight states will vote on ban-gay-marriage amendments in November, following 20 that previously approved such measures. Passage is considered certain in Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee, but gay-rights strategists believe their side is at least competitive in Arizona, Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Supporters of banning gay marriage remain confident of victory, but optimism also is high in the ranks of Fair Wisconsin, a coalition fighting the proposed amendment since it surfaced in the Legislature in 2004. Large labor unions, many religious leaders, and top Democratic officials — including Gov. Jim Doyle — have spoken out against the measure.

"This could be the state where we beat this thing," said Fair Wisconsin campaign chief Mike Tate. "I’m not saying it’s easy, but we’ve got the right ingredients on the table."

Tate believes the gay marriage issue — which helped motivate conservative voters in 2004 — is no longer fueling the same urgency, possibly diminishing conservative turnout. One reason is recent court rulings in New York and Washington state against same-sex unions, leaving Massachusetts as the only state allowing gay marriage.

The head of the rival campaign, Julaine Appling of Vote Yes For Marriage, said her side may wind up being outspent and out-advertised, but she believes Fair Wisconsin’s confidence is misplaced.

"It’s a gross misunderstanding of the people of Wisconsin," she said. "They are good solid stock. They understand that marriage is a good public institution — it’s appropriate to protect it as the union of a man and a woman exclusively."

There have been no major opinion polls since mid-August, when a survey showed Appling’s "Yes" side with 48 percent support, compared to 40 percent against the amendment. Tate says the gap is narrowing as undecided voters tilt against the measure; Appling believes the final result will be in line with Michigan and Ohio, where similar measures prevailed with roughly 60 percent support in 2004.

One of Appling’s allies, Marquette University political scientist Christopher Wolfe, believes the amendment will pass, but perhaps narrowly.

"It’s certainly a lot closer than the people favoring the amendment would like," said Wolfe, who observed that even at his Roman Catholic school many students oppose the ban.

Tate, at 27 a veteran of numerous campaigns, believes campuses statewide will provide vital support for his side. "This is a motivating issue for young people, whether they’re gay or not," he said.

While Milwaukee and the state capital, Madison, tend to veer leftward, the rest of the state is generally more conservative. But opinions are deeply divided.

Among those opposing the amendment is Sue Werblow, 60, a longtime school board member in Oshkosh whose three children include a gay son now practicing law in Seattle.

"I would hope and pray people will stand up for nondiscrimination in our constitution, but it’s anybody’s guess," she said. Her son, observing from afar, "thinks we’re going to lose this battle."

Kathleen Mentink, a college instructor in Eau Claire who favors the amendment, said most people in her area share her position, "but it’s a quiet support." Some voters, she suggested, have been wary of revealing pro-amendment views for fear of being depicted as narrow-minded.

Debbie Knepke finds it hard to be dispassionate. Because the children she helps raise, Sienna and Nolan, were borne by Hackbarth, Knepke has no legal standing as a parent and fears passage of the amendment would dim her chances of ever gaining such recognition.

"It’s the living in fear of what might happen," she said, fighting back tears. "I can’t imagine, if something happened to Candy, that I would not have my children."

The campaign has divided Milwaukee’s black community. U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore is among several black leaders opposing the amendment, while the "Yes" campaign has recruited a cadre of black pastors who are urging their congregations to support it.

Among them is the Rev. Walter Harvey, pastor of the 2,500-member Parklawn Assembly of God.

"Those who oppose the amendment are more aggressive in their advertising for a reason," he said. "The burden of proof is upon them — they have a longer hill to climb, more people to convince. They will ultimately lose."

Moore, a single mother, vehemently objects to the second sentence of the amendment, which would ban civil unions and other legal arrangements "substantially similar" to marriage.

She worries that such terminology could spawn litigation challenging all sorts of informal family relationships, including benefits her own children have received from their father.

Appling insists that domestic partnership benefits will not be barred as long as they don’t parallel marriage rights.

But Moore contends the amendment betrays Wisconsin’s politically progressive tradition.

"A constitution is a sacred document — we use them to confer rights on people, not to write in discrimination," she said. "It’s completely the wrong vehicle for this kind of negative activity."


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