By Brendan O'Brien
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a 2009 law that establishes a registry for same-sex couples, saying it does not violate an amendment to the state's constitution banning gay marriage.
The registry gives same-sex couples the right to hospital visits, family medical leave to care for a stricken partner, health benefits under a partner's insurance and the right to inherit assets when a partner dies.
The court said the ban on same-sex marriage did not include a ban on certain rights for same-sex couples. Wisconsin voters approved the gay marriage ban in a 2006 referendum.
A patchwork of legislation and popular votes has made same-sex marriage legal in 19 U.S. states and banned in 31 while a tangle of appeals are working their way through federal courts. In a number of states marriage is banned but same-sex couples have access to some benefits through legal provisions.
Wisconsin's ban on same-sex marriage was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in June. That ruling was appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, which will hear oral arguments on the case in August.
"The lower court decision, which I think will be affirmed by the 7th Circuit, will eclipse the Supreme Court decision today, in the sense that there may be full marriage equality so you wouldn't need the provisions that were affirmed today," said Carl Tobias, professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
The registry was created under Democratic Governor Jim Doyle and now has more than 2,000 couples on it, according to gay rights groups.
Wisconsin Family Action, an anti-gay rights group, argued in a 2010 lawsuit that the registry violated the amendment because it resembles marriage under state law.
GOVERNOR'S REFORMS UPHELD
In two other separate rulings on Thursday, Wisconsin's Supreme Court upheld reforms - on collective bargaining and on photo identification to cast a vote - put in place by Republicans led by Governor Scott Walker.
"Today's ruling is a victory for ... hard-working taxpayers," Walker said in a statement, referring to the court's upholding collective bargaining reforms that had prompted protests from organized labor. He said the reforms have saved Wisconsin taxpayers more than $3 billion.
While the Supreme Court upheld a 2012 state law requiring voters to have photo identification to vote - saying that providing an ID does not create a substantial burden to voters - that law actually remains blocked by an April ruling by a federal judge that it is unconstitutional.
It is unlikely that voters in Wisconsin will have to show identification in November elections since it could take several months for federal courts to hear arguments in challenges to the April ruling.
"It would be exceptionally unlikely for there to be time for this law to be implemented," said Laurence Dupuis, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who is litigating the case.
Similar voter identification laws have become a political and racial flashpoint across the United States with Democrats generally opposed and many Republicans backing them.
Wisconsin is one of several states that have been forced to defend changes to voting protocol. Judges in recent months have overturned photo identification laws in Pennsylvania and Arkansas.
(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Bill Trott, Jim Loney and Eric Beech)