Sunday, April 5, 2009

Iowa and gay marriage

The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday paved the way for gay marriage in that state. I have very mixed feelings about this decision. On the one hand I'm glad that gays have scored a victory in our fight for equality. With Iowa being a neighbor to my home state (Missouri) this really hits close to home. I never thought that this day would come in the heartland of America. Perhaps Tom and I will plan a trip to IA???

On the other hand I truly wish this victory would have come at the ballot box instead of the courts. Fundamentally I have genuine concerns about judges making law whether I agree with their decision or not. The biggest part of me just thinks that it is not their proper constitutional role.

Unanimous ruling: Iowa marriage no longer limited to one man, one woman
By JEFF ECKHOFF and GRANT SCHULTE • • April 3, 2009

Basic fairness and constitutional equal protection were the linchpins of Friday’s historic Iowa Supreme Court ruling that overturned a 10-year-old ban on same-sex marriage and puts Iowa squarely in the center of the nation’s debate over gay rights.

The unanimous, 69-page decision maintains a church’s right to decide who can be married under its roof, but it runs counter to the expressed opinion of a majority of Iowans who believe marriage is defined as the union of one man and one woman.

The landmark ruling is guaranteed to send shock waves through politics in Iowa and beyond. With no appeal as an option, opponents say their only hope to overturn Friday’s decision is an almost-certain bid to amend the state constitution. But that path, which would eventually require a public vote, would not yield results until 2012 at the earliest.

Enactment of an amendment requires approval by consecutive General Assemblies of the Legislature — a General Assembly lasts two years — and a vote of the people.

In the meantime, Iowa remains one of three states in the nation, and the only state in the Midwest, where gays and lesbians can legally marry. The ruling takes effect April 24. Iowa has no residency requirement for marriage licenses, which virtually assures a rush of applications from out-of-state visitors. The ruling opens the marital door to an estimated 5,800 gay couples in Iowa.

The Rev. Mark Stringer said he cried when he learned of Friday’s decision. Stringer performed the only legal same-sex marriage in Iowa when he officiated a 2007 ceremony in the brief window between a Polk County judge’s ruling and the subsequent court-ordered delay so the Supreme Court could weigh in.

“It’s really an astounding moment under our history,” Stringer said. “What really excites me is that Iowa is the first in our area of the country. We are being a leader in civil rights, which will be part of our state’s history.”

Friday’s decision stemmed from a 2005 lawsuit filed by six gay and lesbian couples who were denied marriage licenses by the Polk County recorder’s office. The seven justices affirmed Polk County Judge Robert Hanson’s ruling that Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriages treated gay and lesbian couples unequally under the law.

“We are firmly convinced that the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective,” the court said in an opinion written by Justice Mark Cady. “The legislature has excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification.”

The ruling appeared to dismiss the option of civil unions as a marriage alternative, finding that “a new distinction based on sexual orientation would be equally suspect and difficult to square with the fundamental principles of equal protection embodied in our constitution.”

Friday’s decision also addressed what it called the “religious undercurrent propelling the same-sex marriage debate” and said judges must remain outside the fray.

“Our constitution does not permit any branch of government to resolve these types of religious debates and entrusts to courts the task of ensuring that government avoids them,” Cady wrote.

“This approach does not disrespect or denigrate the religious views of many Iowans who may strongly believe in marriage as a dual-gender union, but considers, as we must, only the constitutional rights of all people, as expressed by the promise of equal protection for all.”

The Polk County lawsuit, Varnum vs. Brien, was financed by Lambda Legal, a gay-rights group that has fought similar battles across the country.

“We won! It is unanimous!” Lambda attorney Camilla Taylor exclaimed when the decision was announced. “Today the dream becomes reality … and the Iowa Constitution’s promise of equality is fulfilled. Iowans have never waited for others to do the right thing. ”

Lambda chose Iowa because of the fair-mindedness of residents and the courts, leaders of the group have said.

But Iowa also offered several strategic advantages, according to Drake University law professor Mark Kende, who described the ruling as “very well reasoned” and predicted it will have national, possibly international, influence.

“There’s a perception of Iowa as a fair, reasonable and decent place,” Kende said. “We’re not perceived as being overly Republican or overly Democrat.”

The decision could create new, interstate legal battles, he said, when couples who flock to Iowa to marry might not have their vows recognized in other states that prohibit same-sex marriage.

Opponents, some of whom showed up outside the judicial building early Friday to await the ruling, hung their hopes on a constitutional challenge that legislative leaders said earlier this week was a long shot.

Lawyers said Lambda’s decision to sue based solely on state constitutional claims means the case was guaranteed to end in Iowa, away from a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

Polk County authorities acknowledged Friday that they have no plans to ask for a review by the state high court. An appeal to federal court is not an option, since the Iowa Supreme Court is the final word on matters of Iowa law.

Public opinion is a different matter. A February 2008 Iowa Poll conducted by The Des Moines Register showed that most Iowans believed marriage involves one man and one woman. However, the poll also showed that a majority of Iowa adults supported civil unions that would grant benefits to gay couples similar to those offered to married heterosexuals.

For several Iowa couples, Friday’s victory sparked movement on long-held plans. Kate and Trish Varnum, two of the lawsuit plaintiffs, announced their engagement at a news conference.

“Good morning,” Kate Varnum said. “I’d like to introduce you to my fiancee. Today, I am proud to be a lifelong Iowan.”

Several blocks away, Diane Thacker’s eyes filled with tears when the ruling was read to a crowd that had gathered outside the Iowa Judicial Building.

“Sadness,” she whispered. “But I’m prayerful and hope that God’s word will stand.”
Thacker said she joined a group of gay-marriage opponents “because I believe in the marriage vow. I can’t see it any other way.”

Friday’s decision is expected to take formal effect when the Supreme Court issues a legal order to carry out the ruling in three weeks.

National interest in the decision is believed to be at least partly responsible for the 1.5 million people who deluged the Iowa Supreme Court’s Web site before 11 a.m. Richard Socarides, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton on gay civil rights, said that the ruling could mean as much to gay couples outside Iowa as in.

“I think it’s significant, because Iowa is considered a Midwest state in the mainstream of American thought,” Socarides said . “Unlike states on the coasts, there’s nothing more American than Iowa. As they say during the presidential caucuses, 'As Iowa goes, so goes the nation.’”

Others saw it differently.

• Doug Napier, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund in Arizona, said the Iowa Supreme Court “stepped out of its proper role in interpreting the law.”
The 1998 Defense of Marriage Act “was simple, it was settled, and overwhelmingly supported by Iowans,” Napier said. “There was simply no legitimate reason for the court to redefine marriage.”

• Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a New Jersey group, said, “Once again, the most undemocratic branch of government is being used to advance an agenda the majority of Americans reject.”

• Bishop Richard Pates of the Des Moines Diocese urged “the voice of the Iowa people to rise in support of a constitutional amendment which clearly upholds the definition of marriage. We will then join the deafening chorus of citizens in every state, 30 to date, who have voted to preserve civil marriage as it has been recognized and defined since the beginning of recorded history for the benefit of marriage, families, children and the common good.”

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