Varnum v Brien anniversary thread and linkfest

One year ago today, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled that our state’s Defense of Marriage Act violated the equal protection provision of the Iowa Constitution. From the day that ruling went into effect through the end of 2009, at least 1,783 same-sex couples received marriage licenses in Iowa. The real number is probably higher, because about 900 marriage licenses did not specify the gender of the couple involved.

Follow me after the jump for a review of news about marriage equality in Iowa, stories featuring happy couples, and thoughts about the future politics of this issue.  

First, here are more numbers from the Iowa Department of Public Health’s report on marriage licenses issued from April through December 2009. Click the link to view the full report at Todd Dorman’s blog.

More same-sex marriages involved women (1,138) than men (645). Polk County, including Des Moines and most of its suburbs, issued 410 licenses to same-sex couples, more than any other Iowa county. Johnson County (Iowa City) and Scott County (Quad Cities) tied for second with 208 licenses. Pottawattamie (Council Bluffs) was a close fourth with 204, followed by Linn (Cedar Rapids area) with 94. Most of the counties that recorded issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples were along or near Iowa borders, or contain college towns. The statistics don’t show how many couples traveled here from other states to get married.

You may recall that last April, some Iowa Republicans denied that county recorders were obliged to implement the Varnum v Brien ruling. They worked with the Iowa Family Policy Center to collect thousands of signatures on petitions urging county recorders to refuse to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Although some recorders were hesitant to comply with the ruling, in the end no county recorder resigned or promised to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. That deprived social conservatives of a martyr for their cause.

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health’s report, only 17 of Iowa’s 99 counties recorded issuing same-sex marriage licenses in 2009. Perhaps some of the 901 licenses that didn’t record the couple’s gender represented same-sex marriages in smaller counties, however.

Iowa Republican politicians, including all three candidates for governor, remain united in opposition to the Varnum v Brien ruling. Bob Vander Plaats has the most extreme position in the gubernatorial field. He would issue an (illegal) executive order to halt same-sex marriages until Iowans have had a chance to vote on the issue. It takes talent to be so far out of the mainstream that Representative Steve King finds your legal arguments flawed. King considers gay marriage part of a socialist agenda and has warned against Iowa becoming “the gay marriage Mecca,” but even he knows the executive order plan is a non-starter.

Gubernatorial candidate Rod Roberts mentioned “the traditional definition of marriage” in his early advertising and has urged Iowans to vote against retaining the Supreme Court justices who will be on the ballot this November. He wants to use the normal process for amending the constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. Just yesterday he said that as governor he would refuse to sign a state budget unless the state legislature passed a constitutional amendment on marriage. (Roberts seems to have gotten that idea from Chris Rants, who dropped out of the governor’s race earlier this year.)

The Republican front-runner, former Governor Terry Branstad, tends to avoid talking marriage unless asked about it. It’s easy to understand why when you consider how incoherent his views are on this issue. He has defended the concept of judicial review and seems not to have a problem with homosexuals in committed relationships, yet he would use our state’s constitution to deny those couples civil marriage rights.

During the 2010 legislative session, which ended last week, not a single Republican lawmaker spoke out against efforts to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling. Several Republican legislators advanced boneheaded ideas to limit judicial independence as well. Republicans tried and tried but couldn’t get enough Democrats to join their attempts to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy deserve huge credit for holding their caucuses together, especially in an election year that could be challenging for Democrats. I believe that Curt Hanson’s victory in last year’s Iowa House district 90 special election helped reassure wavering Democrats too.

Governor Chet Culver strongly praised the legislature’s restraint at a March 31 press conference:

   “We stood firm for the civil rights of every Iowan by saying loudly and clearly that any and all efforts to add discriminatory amendments to our state constitution have no place in our state constitution,” Culver said in assessing the 2010 legislative work product.

   Culver said he personally believe[s] marriage should be between a man and a woman and there has been no change in that position since the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously decided on April 3, 2009, to strike down a state marriage law – paving the way for civil marriages between two people of the same gender.

   “Regardless of our personal views, we have a line that needs to be drawn between the executive branch and the judicial branch and I think Iowans are ready to move on and accept that unanimous decision,” he told reporters.

   “I think the overwhelming majority of Iowans do not want to amend our constitution in such a way that’s discriminatory. I think that’s the bottom line,” Culver added. “I think Iowans want to move forward and the Supreme Court has spoken loudly and clearly and I think it’s time to move on.”

Todd Dorman zinged Culver for clinging to his personal opposition to same-sex marriage “like some sort of political security blanket.” But Dorman also advised the governor’s critics to

take note of the fact that some political leaders don’t feel the need to enshrine their personal discomforts in the laws or constitution of our state.  There is a difference between your personal views and the responsibilities of governing a whole state.

So even while clutching his blanket, Culver is showing some grown-up leadership. Better late than never. Contrast that with the guys gunning for him, who would meddle with the constitution, tinker with the courts and throw around  illegal executive orders just to get their way.

Culver wasn’t out in front on marriage equality. While Gronstal, Murphy and Attorney General Tom Miller strongly praised the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling the day it was announced, the governor waited four days before releasing a statement affirming his personal opposition to gay marriage even as he declared, “after careful consideration and a thorough reading of the Court’s decision, I am reluctant to support amending the Iowa Constitution to add a provision that our Supreme Court has said is unlawful and discriminatory.”

While I’d never hold Culver up as a profile in courage on marriage, he deserves more credit than some supporters of equality give him. Many governors would have happily demanded to “let the people vote” on marriage as a way to divert public attention from the economic recession and state budget crunch. If Culver had urged legislators to take up this issue, I suspect several more Democrats would have joined Republicans to force a vote on a constitutional amendment during the 2009 or 2010 sessions.

Jason Hancock argued at Iowa Independent this week that the gay marriage issue “appears to be on the back burner” now. I largely agree with his post. The Republican Party of Iowa and its candidates are likely to highlight other issues in most of the battleground legislative districts. Vander Plaats appears likely to lose the gubernatorial primary to Branstad.

I remain somewhat concerned about next year’s legislative session, since the Republicans have a chance to win back the Iowa House and several seats in the Senate. If Democrats end up with only 28 or 29 of the 50 Iowa Senate seats, instead of the current 32, a handful of Democrats might sign a Republican petition to force a marriage vote in the chamber. Taking the optimistic view, some Democratic senators who signed the Republican petition this year, when it clearly wasn’t going anywhere, might not help Republicans on procedural matters in 2011. Gronstal would lay down in front of a truck to stop a marriage vote from coming to the floor.

One thing is certain: the religious right will keep up its demagoguery on marriage. The Iowa Family Policy Center is still claiming, absurdly, that homosexuality is more dangerous and “destructive” to society than smoking. You really can’t reason with these people, but I’ll keep trying.

Social conservatives will also push the “let us vote” framing in many legislative races this fall. Graham Gillete just posted a fantastic rebuttal to their arguments at the Des Moines Register’s blog:

There is much hot air about how letting the Supreme Court ruling stand without a Constitutional question being put to the voters is tantamount to creating a judicial oligarchy.  They argue the people should decide. When you take two steps back from this argument, it is laughable.  The Iowa Legislature passed a law that defined marriage as one man and one woman.  The people never voted on it.  Last April, the Court found this legislative action to be in conflict with the Iowa Constitution.      

It is not that the question of marriage is so big that it demands a vote of the people.  What is at stake is bigger than marriage, something more important than an issue to be decided by a simple and single vote of the people. […]

Our state and national constitutions were established on the most basic of underpinnings, we are equals.  We are entitled to the same rights and protections under the law.  There is no litmus test to determine who among us is ‘more equal,’ who among us is be entitled to own property, speak freely, or get married.

I got to marry the person I love, the person I chose to marry and the person who chose to marry me.  No law or constitutional amendment can be written to say two other people can be denied the same ability because they share the same type of human plumbing, for doing so would violate the most basic tenet of our state and national constitutions.  We are equals.  Our sex, sexual orientation, religion, color, political belief and any other thing that makes us who we are cannot change that fact.  If our Legislature passes a law that says differently, it violates our Constitution and should be struck down.  If a ballot measure is passed by the electorate that says one segment of our population is not entitled to the same rights as another, the Court should invalidate it.  If we say that it is OK for one couple to marry because they are straight, but it is unacceptable for another to marry because they are gay, we invalidate the very Constitution which created Iowa and the one that formed the greatest country on earth.

Gillette’s whole piece is worth your time, so do click over. Here are some other good reads published recently in connection with the Varnum v Brien anniversary.

Iowa Independent profiled two of the plaintiffs in the case, Kate and Trish Varnum. The Burlington Hawk Eye wrote about two men who got engaged last Easter, shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, and are getting married on May 1. The Des Moines Register published this article about Loren Olson, who married his husband last year and is writing a book about coming out later in life. Two more Varnum v Brien plaintiffs, Larry Hoch and David Twombley, authored an op-ed in the Des Moines Register expressing their feelings about being married. Excerpt:

It has been an extremely humbling experience to have been a part of this historic advancement for civil rights for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Iowans. Neither of us has ever been activists for any cause, having gone about our daily lives as productive, responsible citizens. To finally have the right to marry the person we love is incredibly meaningful to us.

As for our feelings as a married couple, it is hard to explain the new and closer relationship we now feel. How could anyone want to deny us the growing love for each other we have experienced? Living together or having a civil union (we had a civil union in Vermont in January 2002 because at that time no other state offered any recognition of a dedicated same-sex relationship) is not the same as being a married couple.

Being married says to our society that we are committed to one another, for better, for worse, etc. Our marriage in no way takes anything away from any other marriage. Indeed, our commitment to a marriage strengthens the whole concept of marriage.

Being married has been such a good thing for both of us; we have become better people as a result. Being married expands self-worth, as one learns to care and support the other marriage partner, and to know that a marriage requires team-work to make this relationship work. Our only regret is that we could not have gotten married decades earlier. We are grateful that many other gay and lesbian Iowa couples will now be able to get married. Thank you, Iowa, for making this possible.

Reading those words reminded me of this observation from Rev. Jane Willan of the United Church of Christ in Burlington:

“Straight weddings are often like that: a photo op,” Willan said. “Weddings for gay couples are very, very different, and I didn’t know that until I stepped into my first one.”

Willan said the same-sex couples she has wed have been less concerned about their attire and the catering and more interested in making their vows.

“If that’s not faith in the gospel, I don’t know what is,” Willan said.

It astounds me that anyone thinks loving couples who want to get married pose a threat to the institution of marriage. Almost any cover of a tabloid or gossip magazine will confirm that Bleeding Heartland user sgarystewart is right: the biggest threat to marriage is and always has been infidelity.

No blog post can make the case for marriage equality better than the television commercial One Iowa ran across the state last April:

I like the way that commercial placed marriage equality within the long tradition of diverse people finding freedom in Iowa under our state’s Constitution. One Iowa announced this week that the commercial “received a Gold Pollie Award from the American Association of Political Consultants in the category of Best TV Spot for a statewide initiative campaign. The Pollie Awards are hailed as the ‘Oscars of Political Advertising.'”

Speaking of awards, Iowa Independent won one for its coverage of the Iowa Supreme Court ruling on April 3, 2009. Click through for links to all eight Iowa Independent stories posted that day.

I decided to steal their idea, so here are links to all the Bleeding Heartland posts about marriage from April 2009:

Iowa Supreme Court strikes down Defense of Marriage Act

Early reaction from Iowa Democrats to the Varnum v Brien ruling

Early reaction from Iowa Republicans to the Varnum v Brien ruling

The coming battle to amend the Iowa Constitution

Tell us if you get robocalled about gay marriage in Iowa

Marriage Equality comes to Iowa (guest post by Drake University law professor Sally Frank)

Culver won’t try to overturn Iowa Supreme Court ruling

Gronstal dares conservatives to push for Constitutional Convention

Iowa House Speaker rejects attempt to bring constitutional amendment for vote

The Real Threat To Iowa Marriages: letter to a GOP Senator (guest post by Bleeding Heartland user sgarystewart)

Culver confirms opposition to constitutional amendment on marriage

Religious right will target three Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010

Steve King news roundup

Dream scenario: a primary challenger for Grassley

Wanted: Republicans who understand judicial review

Brief memo to county recorders in Iowa

Open thread on unsolicited wedding advice

Catch-up thread on gay marriage in Iowa

Iowa Senate Republicans push petition drive to pressure county recorders

The case for marriage equality on a tv screen near you

Fallons file ethics complaint against Bartz

Anti-gay marriage group targets Iowa Republican Senate leader

Republican moderates don’t stand a chance

So far, so good on first day for marriage equality in Iowa

More links on marriage equality in Iowa

Share any relevant thoughts or same-sex wedding stories in this thread. I’ve only attended one same-sex commitment ceremony, which took place several months before the Varnum v Brien ruling.

Login or Join to comment and post.