Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was sued Monday by four same-sex couples seeking the right to marry and overturn a law that threatens imprisonment to those who seek legal recognition in other states.
The complaint, filed in Madison federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union, is the latest by advocates seeking to expand recognition for gay couples beyond the 17 states where such marriages are allowed. Similar litigation is pending in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Michigan and Utah.
"More and more Americans over the past few years accept the idea that same-sex couples and their families shouldn't be treated differently," John Knight, an attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, said in a statement. "It is our hope that Wisconsin will soon join the other 17 states in granting the freedom to marry."
Advocates of gay marriage moved the fight for recognition to the state level following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in June that left standing an order ending California's ban on same-sex marriage. The ruling also struck down a law that denied federal benefits to gay couples.
The court didn't say whether similar state laws should also be struck down, leaving lower courts to grapple with that issue.
New Mexico was barred by its highest court on Dec. 19 from denying same-sex couples the right to marry. Last month, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said he would seek to overturn his state's ban, comparing it to a prohibition on interracial unions. He is the fourth state attorney general to refuse to defend such a law.
Tom Evenson, a spokesman for Walker, a Republican, didn't immediately return an email seeking comment on the suit. Dana Brueck, a spokeswoman for Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.
Wisconsin's ban violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of due process and equal protection, according to the complaint. The law sends a message that lesbians, gay men, and their children are "second-class citizens," the ACLU said.
"The only way for Wisconsin couples to get the federal protections that come with marriage is for them to go out of state to marry," the ACLU said. "But Wisconsin law says that may be a crime punishable by nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine."
The statute makes it a criminal offense to go outside the state to "contract a marriage prohibited under the laws of Wisconsin."
With marriage comes protections such as the ability to make decisions about a partner's healthcare, plaintiff Garth Wangemann of Milwaukee said.
In 2011, Wangemann was diagnosed with lung cancer and had much of his right lung removed, according to the complaint. A complication occurred after an operation, and he was put into a medically induced coma for almost a month.
With his progress uncertain, Wangemann's father attempted to override the wishes of his son's partner of 37 years, Roy Badger, who had power of attorney. The father sought to take his son off of life support, the ACLU said.
Wangemann recovered before a decision was made.
"What upset me the most was that after all of our time together, our relationship was not fully recognized by my family and there was a real danger that my wish to give Roy the ability to make decisions about my care could be stripped away," Wangemann said in a statement.