Gay rights advocates rally at City Hall

Milwaukee area homosexual rights advocates rallied at City Hall Monday against a proposed amendment to the state constitution they say would infringe on their rights to be in relationships legally recognized by the state.

The proposed amendment, known as AJR 66, passed the Legislature last session. According to the Wisconsin Constitution, the amendment must pass through the Legislature once more during the next session. If it passes two successive legislative votes, citizens vote on it before it becomes law. It has not, however, been introduced during the current session yet.

City Hall, 200 E. Wells St., overflowed with anti-amendment protestors, and at one point, three tiers of the Hall's lobby were filled with people, some displaying signs that read "Commitment Hurts No One" and "Love Sees No Gender."

A parade of speakers, including Baptist, Lutheran and Unitarian clerics, spoke to the crowd, urging not only defeat of the amendment but acceptance for gays and lesbians as well.

"When we advocated for the rights of those children whose parents are gay and lesbian, they said 'Pastor, you can't do that. That's not an honest reading of the Bible,'" said Pastor David Dragseth of Lake Park Lutheran Church. "And I have to ask myself, 'What Bible are you reading?' The Bible I know is never, ever about hate."

At one point, protest organizers held up posters with pictures of state Reps. David Cullen (D-Milwaukee), Suzanne Jeskewitz (R-Menomonee Falls), Tony Staskunas (D-West Allis) and state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-Menomonee Falls) and urged gatherers to whip out their cell phones and call the elected officials to urge them to vote against the amendment. One attendee said, "C'mon, Sen. Darling. Be a sweetheart and vote 'no' to the amendment."

AJR 66, called "the defense of marriage amendment" by its supporters and the "constitutional ban on civil unions and gay marriage" by its detractors, reads: "only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state and that a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state."

"It's a far-reaching amendment that would ban civil unions and same-sex partnerships, not only gay marriages," said Hale Sargent, a Marquette graduate student and volunteer with the No on the Amendment Coalition. "This isn't about protecting marriage. It's about denying protection to gays and lesbians."

"What people don't realize is that that second sentence goes far beyond marriage," said Patrick Flaherty, a spokesman for the Milwaukee Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center.

The proposed amendment is adamantly opposed by Milwaukee- area homosexual rights groups.

"We think that everybody should have the choice and freedom to marry if they are in a committed relationship," said Pabitra Benjamin, spokeswoman for Center Advocates, the advocacy branch of the LGBT Community Center.

Benjamin said Center Advocates sees the proposed amendment as an attack on committed relationships and domestic partnerships.

"We don't think that's appropriate," she said.

Other groups, however, support the proposed amendment.

"We support this amendment because it's the best way to protect the fundamental, societal institution of marriage," said Julaine Appling, spokeswoman for the Family Research Institute. "This is the very best protection we can give to the institution of marriage in this state."

The Wisconsin Catholic Conference, a public policy group, supports the proposed amendment but not discrimination.

"We think it's a prudent position to affirm traditional marriage and to use the debate as a teachable moment," said John Huebscher, the Conference's executive director. "I think our message is of two parts. One is the affirmation of traditional marriage and (two) is a reverence for all people. We deplore and reject any rhetoric against any people."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Feb. 15 2005.