MADISON, Wis. -- A judge ruled Monday that Wisconsin's domestic partnership registry does not violate the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage – a major victory for the state's largest gay rights group that had defended the registry established in 2009 to bestow legal rights to same-sex couples.
The social conservative group that brought the lawsuit vowed to appeal it all the way to the state Supreme Court if necessary.
Dane County Circuit Judge Daniel Moeser ruled that the 2009 law does not create a legal status for partners that is identical or substantially similar to that of marriage and therefore it does not violate the constitutional ban approved by voters in 2006.
"The state does not recognize domestic partnership in a way that even remotely resembles how the state recognizes marriage," Moeser said in the ruling. "Moreover, domestic partners' have far fewer legal rights, duties, and liabilities in comparison to the legal rights, duties, and liabilities of spouses."
Members of the conservative group Wisconsin Family Action filed the lawsuit last summer arguing the registry was unconstitutional. The group's president Julaine Appling called the ruling "just the first step in what will be a long process."
"We're going to work through the process and we will be appealing as we work to defend the constitution and the institution of marriage," Appling said.
Wisconsin Family Action had asked the state Supreme Court to strike down the registry directly, bypassing the lower courts. But the Supreme Court refused to act on the case before it went through the lower courts first.
Katie Belanger, director of the state's largest gay rights group Fair Wisconsin, heralded the ruling, calling it a "great day for Wisconsin."
She said the group was prepared for the judge's decision to be appealed and it will continue to defend the law, which she said provides same-sex couples rights that are essential for them to care for one another in times of need.
She said about 1,700 couples were signed up for the registry. The majority of those, about 1,300, signed up in the first four months it was available in 2009.
Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan, who is gay and fought for the law, praised the judge's ruling, calling the lawsuit challenging it a "mean-spirited and unjust attack on same-sex couples. Hopefully, this will put the fears of not being able to visit your loved one in the hospital to rest."
The registry grants same-sex couples legal rights such as the right to visit each other in hospitals, make end-of-life decisions and inherit each other's property.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen refused to defend the registry, relying on his legal conclusion the list was clearly unconstitutional. Former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, had appointed private attorneys to defend the law.
But his successor, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, fired those attorneys earlier this year and told the judge in May that he wanted to stop defending the registry in court because he believed it was unconstitutional.
Fair Wisconsin had lobbied lawmakers to approve the registry and had joined the case as an intervener and was defending the registry.
The judge already had heard arguments in the case by the time Walker submitted his request. He noted the change in position earlier this month.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court last year also upheld the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions but the ruling did not affect the registry. The constitutional amendment was approved by 59 percent of voters.