MADISON, Wis. — Gay rights advocates hailed a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings Wednesday supporting same-sex couples as groundbreaking victories, but the decisions don't affect Wisconsin's gay marriage ban or require the state to recognize gay couples who wed in other states.
The high court ruled that legally married gay Americans are eligible for federal tax, health and pension benefits. The court also let stand a lower court finding that California's gay marriage ban is unconstitutional.
But the court didn't address the merits of California's ban and didn't issue any sweeping conclusions for or against same-sex marriage. The court also left alone a provision of federal law that allows states to ignore a same-sex union from elsewhere. Thirty-five states, including Wisconsin, prohibit gay marriage, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Still, gay rights advocates praised the rulings.
"As we celebrate this momentous occasion, we must continue to move forward and ensure all loving couples are treated as equals," said U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Madison Democrat who is gay and married his partner in Canada in 2006. "I am now more confident than ever that full marriage equality is a question not of if, but when."
Wisconsin conservatives, though, say the rulings leave states free to address gay marriage as they see fit and the decisions don't change things here.
"Our marriage protection amendment in this state is still valid and will continue to be," said Julaine Appling, president of the conservative group Wisconsin Family Action. "Wisconsin voters adopted it. Nothing in (the rulings) said we can't do that."
Republicans pushed through an amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution in 2006 banning same-sex marriage. Three years later Democratic lawmakers created a domestic partner registry that affords same-sex couples who sign on a host of legal rights. About 1,800 couples were on the registry at the end of 2011, according to the latest data from the state Department of Health Services.
Wisconsin Family Action has challenged the registry in court, claiming it creates a legal status substantially similar to marriage for same-sex couples and therefore violates the constitutional ban on gay marriage. Fair Wisconsin, the state's largest gay rights group, is defending the registry.
A state appeals court in December upheld the registry, saying married heterosexuals still retain more rights than same-sex couples. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is weighing the case.
Meanwhile, it's unclear how extensive the federal benefits might be for same-sex married couples in Wisconsin.
People who married and live in states that allow same-sex marriage are clearly eligible. It's more complicated for same-sex couples who traveled to another state to get married or married legally in one state, then moved away. Their eligibility depends on what benefits they're seeking and whether the benefits hinge on where the recipients reside or where they were married.
Larry Dupuis, the legal director for the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the benefits decision still suggests a stronger view of equal protection for same-sex couples, which could bolster the case for the state's registry, he said. The national ACLU brought the lawsuit that led to the benefits decision Wednesday; the Wisconsin chapter has filed briefs defending the registry.
"Denying them even this minimal level of approximating marriage, it would look much more like it's animated by hostility," Dupuis said.
As for Wisconsin's gay marriage ban, it would take another amendment to remove it from the constitution. Such a change would have to pass two consecutive legislative sessions and a statewide referendum. Fair Wisconsin Executive Director Katie Belanger said in a statement that state law defining marriage as between a husband and wife also would have to be changed.
Her staff is still reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court rulings and discussing whether any lawsuits would be appropriate, she said.
Wisconsin ACLU Executive Director Chris Ahmuty said the chapter is focused on defending the partner registry and isn't considering any lawsuits challenging the ban, at least not yet. He said challenges to gay marriage prohibitions elsewhere in the country might eventually draw a broader decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that would settle the issue.
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Fitzgerald's office was still reviewing the decisions and had no immediate comment. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said he interpreted the rulings to mean states can set whatever policy they want on gay marriage and he doubted Wisconsin's ban would change "any time soon."
Republican Gov. Scott Walker's spokesman said in an email to The Associated Press the rulings don't appear to affect Wisconsin law.