Marriage protest ends in frustration as Portage County Courthouse closes

Written by Stevens Point Journal Media

 

 

STEVENS POINT — 4:45 p.m. update: State Rep. Katrina Shankland failed Friday to persuade Portage County leaders to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses, dashing the hopes of protesters who spent the day lobbying for gay rights.
 
Shankland left Corporation Counsel Mike McKenna’s office at 4 p.m. Friday after asking him to reconsider his stance on issuing same-sex marriage licenses in Portage County. Shankland said McKenna and the Portage County Clerk’s Office still were waiting for word from the state and that McKenna declined her request.
 
“I wanted to know on what legal basis they were denying these licenses,” Shankland said. “Why is it that residents of the 63 counties issuing licenses can enjoy the benefits of marriage, but couples in Portage County can’t? How is that fair?”
 
Shankland said she told McKenna that gay couples in Portage County that are ready to marry might have only a brief window during which to say their vows; U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb said Friday that she likely would order a halt to gay weddings until higher courts rule on the issue.
 
“If they were married now, it would be highly, highly likely, based on precedents set by other federal courts, that the marriages would be considered valid, even if a stay were issued.”
 
Shankland said gay couples cannot receive about 1,400 federal benefits these unless they are married. Among them: joint parenting, adoption, foster care and child visitation, status as next of kin, the ability to make medical decisions if their spouse cannot, joint insurance policies and divorce protection.
 
“So many rights that are not conferred on same-sex couples who don’t have to ability to enjoy these marriage rights in Portage County conferred through marriage licenses,” she said. “This is an important decision we need our county clerk to make.”
 
3:45 p.m. update: Demonstrators Stephanie Stokes, 41, and Sam Rhoda, 54, who were stationed outside the Portage County Courthouse for most of the day Friday, were anxiously checking their phones late in the afternoon, awaiting an indication about what U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb’s ruling would mean for gay marriage in Wisconsin.
 
“I’ve read she (Judge Crabb) is thinking about putting it on hold until she can make a clearer ruling,” Stokes said.
 
Rhoda said he doesn’t think any same-sex marriage licenses would be issued by Portage County Courthouse Friday, a blow to the crowd that at one point had swelled to about 50 protesters.
“It’s so disappointing when so many other counties have it clear,” Rhodes said.
 
Although it appears a ruling will not be made today, Allen Rasmussen and Keith Kitsembel said they will keep applying for a license in Portage County, even if they keep being denied. Portage County was among about a dozen Wisconsin counties still refusing Friday to issue same-sex licenses.
 
“I’m upset she (Judge Crabb) hasn’t make a clear ruling today, but we’re going to hold on to hope,” Rasmussen said.
 
“It’s just plain sad,” Kitsembel said. “I was so excited this morning and I was sure by this afternoon we’d have a license. It’s looking like we’ll just have to wait.”
 
State Rep. Katrina Shankland returned to the protest around 3:15 and said she was going to try to talk with county Corporation Counsel Mike McKenna, who directed the county clerk not to issue gay marriage licenses.
 
“We’re anxiously awaiting a ruling, hoping for good news,” Shankland said. “Marriage equality has long been supported by the state, and the loving couples and supporters who showed up today are proof of that. We’re hoping a ruling will come through today.”
 
Shankland said Rasmussen and Kitsembel shouldn’t have to wait a day longer.
 
2:45 p.m. update: Rich Louze, 46, of Wausau was married Thursday in Marathon County after the County Clerk’s Office there began approving marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Louze and his partner were issued an expedited license, and later received a marriage certificate.
Louze said he and his new husband, Patrick Bacher, were congratulated by employees at the Wausau courthouse and traveled to Stevens Point Friday to share the love.
 
“A good friend of mine told me there would be a protest here today, and I was just married yesterday, so I thought it was only right for me to come down to support this couple,” Louze said.
 
Louze said he can’t understand the delay at the Portage County Clerk’s Office.
“It’s not fair, and I think it’s stubborn on the part of the (county) clerk,” Louze said. “We’re not second-class citizens, we should have the same rights as other couples.”
 
2 p.m. update: U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb was holding a hearing early Friday afternoon at which she was to determine the next steps for Wisconsin on its road toward legalized gay marriage.
 
Outside the Portage County Courthouse, where demonstrators came and went for much of Friday morning and early afternoon, a group of more than 20 people was still on hand awaiting Crabb’s decision and hoping it caused the county to change course.
 
As they waiting, Keith Kitsembel, one of the men awaiting a marriage license, told supporters to cross their fingers.
 
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous about anything in my entire life,” Kitsembel said.
Kitsembel said that, whatever the ruling is, he knows he’s going to cry when it comes.
 
“I hope they’re tears of joy,” Kitsembel said.
 
According to The Associated Press, Portage County was one of just 12 counties in the state still denying licenses to same-sex couples Friday. The state’s other 60 counties were issuing them, though some were requiring couples to wait five days before marrying.
 
12:45 p.m. update: Some gay-marriage supporters are blaming the wrong person for the county’s refusal to issue licenses to same-sex couples.
 
Portage County Clerk of Courts Patricia Baker said her office has received about 50 calls and several emails urging the county to approve licenses for gay couples.
 
Baker said she began by explaining that the county clerk, not her Clerk of Courts Office, is responsible for issuing marriage licenses. But after the calls increased in volume, she changed her phone’s voicemail message to reflect that information, Baker said.
 
“It’s an easy mistake to make,” Baker said.
 
12:30 p.m. update: The couple at the heart of Friday’s same-sex marriage protest tried again at about noon to apply for a marriage license and again were denied.
 
Allen Rasmussen and Keith Kitsembel said County Clerk Shirley Simonis has declined several times to issue them a marriage license. Though they expected the most recent rejection, they said it didn’t hurt to try in case Simonis or county Corporation Counsel Mike McKenna had changed their minds.
 
McKenna has advised Simonis not to issue licenses until the state gives additional guidance on the issue.
 
In related news, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb was scheduled at 1 p.m. to issue a statement that could offer more guidance to county clerks and attorneys. Crabb last week handed down the decision declaring that the state’s ban on gay marriage violates the U.S. Constitution.
 
12:15 p.m. update: Passersby who came across the gay-marriage protest outside the Portage County Courthouse Friday morning appeared mostly to support same-sex couple who want to marry.
 
Though most courthouse visitors have passed the protest without engaging, a handful has voiced words of support.
 
Two young men stopped t to show their support by playing guitar and singing. As they left, they wished the other protesters luck in their mission. “Keep it up,” one of them yelled as they walked away.
 
“We’ll be here. We’re not going anywhere” protester Allen Rasmussen said in response.
By noon Friday, the crowd demonstrating in favor of gay marriage had shrunk from about 50 to roughly 20. A few of the protesters were walking up and down on Church Street in front of the courthouse with signs saying “Respect the rights of same sex couples” and “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
 
Several drivers waved and honked their horns as they drove past.
 
Noon update: Portage County District Attorney Louis Molepske said Friday morning that he would not prosecute County Clerk Shirley Simonis is she were to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
 
Molepske said he doesn’t believe he would have grounds to file charges, and that a special prosecutor and reserve judge would have to be called in to try such a case, which would be impractical.
 
“How would that be helping society?” Molepske said of bringing charges against a clerk that issued a license. “We have much more serious cases to prosecute.”
 
Molepske’s comments were in reference to state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s warning Thursday that any clerk in Wisconsin who issued a gay-marriage license could be prosecuted for violating state law.
 
11:45 a.m. update: The crowd gathered at the Portage County Courthouse Friday morning was singing The Dixie Cups do-wop classic “Chapel of Love,” and replacing lyrics with words appropriate to the day.
 
Instead of singing “going to the chapel where we’re going to get married,” the crowd sang “going to the courthouse” and “getting married today,” for example.
 
State Rep. Katrina Shankland, stymied in her attempts to contact the county’s lawyer to plead for same-sex marriages, had left the protest but vowed to return with petitions calling for the county to begin issuing licenses.
 
11:30 a.m. update: A local pastor who is ready to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies has joined the gay-marriage protest at the Portage County Couthouse.
 
Rep. Katrina Shankland left around 11:15 a.m., and said she would be back this afternoon with petitions. She still plans to call or email Corporation Counsel Mike McKenna this afternoon.
 
The Rev. Scott Crandall of Peace United Church of Christ in Stevens Point said he would be willing to marry the couple at the heart of the protest, Allen Rasmussen and Keith Kitsembel. Crandall said he has married same-sex couples before, and that his church has always accepted gay couples.
 
“Some people don’t realize that there’s a portion of the church that is very in support of marriage equality,” Crandall said. “I hope that the decision will be made here in Portage County that they’ll start issuing marriage licenses to all couples.”
 
11:15 a.m. update: Rumors of a counter-protest intended to support the county’s decision not to issue same-sex marriage licenses appear to have been just that — rumors.
 
As of 11:15 a.m. Friday, no counter-protesters were present at the Portage County Courthouse, where a local gay couple was demonstrating after being refused a marriage license.
 
About 20 protesters remained on the courthouse steps holding signs and banners; others were inside the courthouse.
 
11 a.m. update: A protest of Portage County’s decision not to issue same-sex marriage licenses has grown to almost 50 people Friday morning and the rhetoric is getting more heated.
 
Allen Rasmussen read a written statement to Portage County Clerk Shirley Simonis. The statement said Rasmussen holds Simonis personally responsible for not allowing hime and other Portage County same-sex couples to marry. Rasmussen planned the silent protest after Simonis declined to issue a license to him and his partner.
 
State Rep. Katrina Shankland arrived at the protest at about 10:20 a.m. Shankland said she is going to try to speak with Portage County Corporate Counsel Mike McKenna, who was in court this morning. She said she is going to try to call or email him this afternoon and persuade him to change the county’s position.
 
Keith Kitsembel, Rasmussen’s fiance, also was urging change.
 
“All I want to do is marry the person I love,” Kitsembel said. “That’s all.”
 
Rasmussen addressed the group gathered to support him and said, “Though it may not be today, or tomorrow, I believe we will be married, and we won’t have to leave the state to do so.”
 
After Rasmussen and Kietsembel again were denied a marriage license at about 10:30 a.m., Shankland addressed the crowd on the steps of the courthouse. She said that it is government’s duty to represent all of its people and that the prohibition on gay marriage has been ruled unconstitutional cannot be enforced.
 
“Portage County will have marriage equality,” Shankland said. “It’s not a question of if but when.”
 
10:15 a.m. update: More than 20 protesters gathered at the Portage County Courthouse Friday morning to support Allen Rasmussen and Keith Kitsembel in their protest of the county’s decision to not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
 
Rasmussen said Kitsembel said they do not know many of the protesters who are giving their support, but that they are very grateful for their help. Sally Topinka, 62, lives in Stevens Point and said a friend told her about the protest, so she decided to join in. She said she hopes the demonstration will put pressure on the county to begin issuing marriage licenses.
 
Nancy Shefferly, another Stevens Point resident, said that, “not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples is an incorrect action.”
 
Portage County remains one of about 20 counties in the state that are not issuing licenses. More than 50 counties are issuing them.
 
Rasmussen said state Rep. Katrina Shankland will be at the protest and will bring with her a petition for demonstrators to sign.
 
The protest coincidentally is happening the day after the 47th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision that struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
 
This story will be updated throughout the day.