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In Context: Gov. Scott Walker's much-scrutinized comments on the state's gay marriage ban

Plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Wisconsin's ban on gay marriage appear during a press conference at the Concourse Hotel in Madison, Feb. 3, 2014. AP Plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Wisconsin's ban on gay marriage appear during a press conference at the Concourse Hotel in Madison, Feb. 3, 2014. AP

Plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Wisconsin's ban on gay marriage appear during a press conference at the Concourse Hotel in Madison, Feb. 3, 2014. AP

By Dave Umhoefer May 30, 2014

When asked recently about defending the Wisconsin constitution’s ban on same-sex marriage, Gov. Scott Walker sent a long message through reporters gathered around him.

But what was he trying to say?

Some observers thought Walker, a gay-marriage opponent with 2016 presidential aspirations, had backed away from supporting the ban.

Others detected merely a change in tone or just a desire to duck questions as public opinion has shifted in favor of same-sex marriage. Walker’s campaign told us: "The governor's position has been consistent and he will continue to uphold and defend our Constitution."

Let’s look back at the Republican governor’s words and actions on the issue and put them In Context, our occasional feature examining comments that have drawn public attention.

In 2006, Walker supported the referendum drive in which 59 percent of Wisconsin voters backed a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between one man and one woman.

In the 2010 governor’s race, Walker emphasized that support and said he believed the domestic partner registry enacted by Democrats in 2009 illegally contradicted the constitutional amendment, which banned arrangements similar to gay marriage.

In early 2013, Walker acknowledged that many young conservatives favor marriage equality, but weeks later reaffirmed Wisconsin’s ban, saying it’s "based on the vote of the people."

In February 2014, after the ACLU challenged the state constitution’s ban in court, Walker said as governor he was obligated to uphold the constitution, but defending it would be left to Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. He said he hadn’t heard of "a significant movement" in the state to alter the ban.

Walker is campaigning for re-election in the fall. Democrat Mary Burke, who supports gay marriage and voted against the 2006 amendment banning it, is his main challenger so far.

That brings us to Walker’s comments of May 23, 2014.

He spoke as U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb in Madison deliberated on whether Wisconsin's ban is in keeping with the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of due process and equal protection under the law. Her ruling is expected soon.

When Walker spoke, he declined several opportunities to directly support the ban’s legality.

Question: "Do you believe the state will prevail, and do you also believe the ban ought to still be supported?"

Gov. Walker: "I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer, obviously. I mean I’ve watched stories around the country. It seems like even from the Attorney General’s comments -- I haven’t talked to him directly on this -- that he feels that it’s not certain but that it’s at least possible that the court might act in this case as they have in other cases. So we’ll watch and see."

"The bottom line is I think this is, while maybe an issue for the courts, and it may be an issue for the legislative races, it certainly isn’t going to be an issue in the governor’s election because I believe it will be resolved in the courts. It will be an issue that’s ultimately discussed by legislators, but as you know, to change the constitution, the Governor doesn’t have a say in that, it’s the Legislature and ultimately the voters. So we’ll see, it will be interesting to watch.

"It’s something that garners a lot of public attention but it’s something that most voters, most constituents don’t talk to me about one way or the other."

Question: Should [Federal Judge] Barbara Crabb uphold the state’s constitution that was approved by voters?

Walker: "Well, again, from the state standpoint, the constitution of the state is the highest measure. Any federal judge has got to look at that law not only with respect to the state’s constitution but with respect to the US Constitution as well."

"I’m not going to pretend to tell a federal judge, in that regard, what she or he should do about it. In other cases where we think the case is pretty clear, certainly we’d invoke the state’s position. On this one, again, it’s up to the Attorney General to forward it."

Question: You’re a defendant as governor, and the Attorney General is defending the law, so do you believe that the law is defensible?

Walker: "OK, that’s one where the case is being made by … you know, I’m a defendant because I’m the governor. It wouldn’t matter if it were Jim Doyle, Scott Walker, Tommy Thompson, Scott McCallum."

Question: But do you believe it’s constitutional?

Walker: "That’s one the courts ultimately have to decide. I think it was, you know, passed in 2006 by the people of this state, by a significant enough margin at that time, but whether it’s upheld in federal court, again, that’s not my area of expertise."

Question: What’s your feeling on if that same vote were held today, where do you think that would go?

Walker: "I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Polls are one thing on any of these issues, but votes are completely different oftentimes. So I don’t know what I think."

Question: If Barbara Crabb does allow people to walk down the street to the Dane County Courthouse and get married, as gay and lesbian couples, does that mean a big change for the state, either in our values or our economy, any of that?

Walker: "I don’t know what it means. Others will have to focus in on that. The reason I point that out is, and voters don’t talk to me about it. They talk to me about the economy, they talk to me about their kids’ schools, they talk to me about making sure we keep our finances in order.

"I haven’t been widespread and outspoken about this, because that’s not what voters talk to me about. The only question I got in the 2010 election came in a forum by one of the members of the media, and I find out it was in the Constitution and it didn’t really have a bearing on who the governor was. And to me I don’t think anything’s changed since then."

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Our Sources

Audio of Gov. Walker’s comments provided by Jason Stein, Journal Sentinel Madison Bureau reporter

Email exchange with Alleigh Marre, spokeswoman, Walker for Governor, May 29, 2014

Email exchange with Joe Zepecki, spokesman, Burke for Wisconsin, May 28, 2014

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Walkers seeks to stop defense of state’s domestic partner registry," May 16, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Van Hollen braces for judge to toss gay marriage ban," May 23, 2014

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Scott Walker addresses presidency talk, gay marriage," March 18, 2013

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Candidates for governor are split on gay rights issues," June 26, 2010

Associated Press, "Walker dodges gay marriage questions, Van Hollen expects state’s ban to be overturned," May 25, 2014

Interview with Chris Ahmuty, executive director, ACLU of Wisconsin, May 29, 2014

Interview with Katie Belanger, president and CEO, Fair Wisconsin, May 29, 2014

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In Context: Gov. Scott Walker's much-scrutinized comments on the state's gay marriage ban