In 2006 Wisconsin voters approved an amendment to the state constitution stating only marriages between a man and a woman are valid in the state. The move came after approval by two Republican-led legislatures. But the amendment didn’t prevent gay couples from entering domestic partnerships, which have similar legal protections as marriage. And when the Supreme Court struck down a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013 that banned states from recognizing those same-sex marriages, the movement to make Wisconsin lawfully allow gay couples to marry began to gain momentum.
A few months later, in October 2014, a federal judge ruled that the state’s ban on marriages between same-sex partners was unconstitutional. The ACLU filed the case Wolf v. Walker on behalf of several gay couples who were seeking the right to marry in Wisconsin.
The ACLU’s strategy was to make sure that the courts understood that Wisconsin’s refusal to recognize gay and lesbian marriages amounted to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Working with Leon Rouse, a student activist, they were able to build a coalition of lawmakers, business owners and even religious leaders that led to broad bipartisan support.
They also made clear that this was not about approving or endorsing homosexuality, but about protecting human rights and dignity. It worked. The bill went to the governor, Lee Dreyfus, and he signed it into law on February 25, 1982. This was as AIDS paranoia was gripping the country, and it created the impression that Wisconsin was risking “the moral fabric of society” by legitimizing gay and lesbian lives.