Throwback Thursday: The first month of marriage equality in Iowa

I’m taking a break from the overwhelming amount of discouraging political news to mark a happy anniversary. Eight years ago this week, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously struck down our state’s Defense of Marriage Act.

I wanted to share highlights from Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of the month that marriage equality became a reality for Iowans.

A timeline of the Varnum v Brien case, along with briefs and court rulings, can be found on the Lambda Legal website. Lambda Legal filed the lawsuit on behalf of six Iowa couples.

As the Iowa Supreme Court prepared to hear the case in December 2008, a favorable outcome seemed realistic enough for me to to start pondering ways to cope with a possible political backlash. After listening to the oral arguments, I felt cautiously optimistic. Years later, I learned the justices had decided fairly quickly to affirm District Court Judge Robert Hanson’s ruling. (Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen told that story in their book Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality.)

Still upbeat in February 2009, I encouraged Bleeding Heartland readers to “get ready to make the case for gay marriage” with their friends and relatives and related a story that still makes me smile.

A couple of weeks ago I ran into two women who recently became engaged, anticipating a favorable outcome in Varnum v Brien. (They have been together for a long time.) They have started looking at wedding dresses, and while shopping around they stopped in a store in a relatively small city (population under 30,000, and not a liberal college town). Apparently the main reaction of the shop owner there was, “Cha-ching! Two dresses!”

I believe the majority of Iowans will accept gay marriage within a few years if it becomes legal.

The evening of April 2, 2009, word spread in the central Iowa progressive community that we were going to like what we heard when the Supreme Court released the marriage ruling the following morning. I later learned that legislative leaders were tipped by a request for extra security at the Iowa Supreme Court building. Why would the justices be concerned about security if they were planning to uphold the ban on same-sex marriage?

Friday, April 3: Writing my first post on the Supreme Court decision, I was proud to be an Iowan and thrilled to alert readers to planned rallies around the state celebrating the freedom to marry. Before re-reading this post, I had forgotten that the surge in traffic caused a few issues for my server that morning (#firstworldproblems).

Later in the day, I covered Iowa Democratic reaction to the court ruling. Governor Chet Culver released a cautious statement about his plans to review the decision. Representative Leonard Boswell said that he respected the decision of the court. Senator Tom Harkin and Representatives Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack were somewhat more positive about the ruling, and Attorney General Tom Miller went even further, saying he thought the high court reached the “right” decision.

House Speaker Pat Murphy and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal surpassed them all, welcoming the ruling that kept Iowa “a leader in guaranteeing all of our citizens’ equal rights.” Click through to read the full statement, which will be remembered as a high point in their legislative careers.

Also on April 3, State Senator Matt McCoy recorded this video about a “red-letter day for the state of Iowa. All Iowa citizens how have equal protections under the law.”

Saturday, April 4: I covered early Iowa Republican reaction to the Varnum decision. Statements from Senator Chuck Grassley and Representative Tom Latham struck me as perfunctory, going through the motions of expressing their disappointment and calling on state legislators to take action. Representative Steve King made the usual embarrassing but attention-getting remarks, culminating in: “Along with a constitutional amendment, the legislature must also enact marriage license residency requirements so that Iowa does not become the gay marriage Mecca due to the Supreme Court’s latest experiment in social engineering.” Bob Vander Plaats was clearly angling to make the most of the opportunity to cement his front-runner status in the field of likely Republican candidates for governor.

Re-reading this post, the biggest surprise for me was how incoherent Matt Strawn’s statement was on behalf of the Republican Party of Iowa.

Also on the day after the Supreme Court ruling, I posted my best advice for anyone planning a wedding.

Monday, April 6: The coming battle to amend the Iowa Constitution. This post covered the two possible ways Republicans could try to overturn the Varnum ruling and included Gronstal’s forceful response to Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, who wanted to bring a marriage amendment to the Senate floor.

I never get tired of watching this speech.

The same day, Bleeding Heartland user Elton Davis shared Drake University Law Professor Sally Frank’s take on the Supreme Court ruling. Frank is one of Iowa’s leading civil rights advocates.

Tuesday, April 7: Following up on his classic Senate remarks the day before, Gronstal in effect dared conservatives to push for a constitutional convention: “There’s a lot of good, progressive issues that we could pursue: a woman’s right to choose, guaranteed health care for all Iowa citizens, workers’ rights – so if there are people that want to help us get to a constitutional convention, that’s kind of my dream world.”

The same day, I was relieved to share the news that Culver decided not to support a constitutional amendment on marriage. Vander Plaats had tried to box Culver in with ill-considered comments made long before the Supreme Court heard the case. But the governor made clear, “I fully respect the right of all Iowans to live under the full protection of Iowa’s Constitution.” He also noted that the ruling “does not require that churches recognize marriages between persons of the same gender or officiate over such unions.”

Also that Tuesday, I reported on automated calls conservatives were already funding to generate constituent contacts to Democratic lawmakers on “gay marriage.” I urged readers to take notes and report back on the robocalls’ content.

Thursday, April 9: Murphy stepped up to the plate and blocked multiple attempts to force a marriage vote in the Iowa House. First, the speaker prevented a vote on a constitutional amendment. Later the same day, he ruled out of order Chris Rants’s ploy to attach an amendment banning same-sex marriage to a bill on health care.

Only two of the 56 House Democrats supported a Republican motion to suspend the rules and force a vote on that amendment: Dolores Mertz and Geri Huser. Mertz had long been among the most conservative Democrats in the Iowa legislature and represented a Republican-leaning district. But Huser’s seat on the east side of Des Moines and Pleasant Hill was considered safe for Democrats. She hadn’t even drawn a GOP opponent in the previous election. What was her excuse?

Meanwhile, Bleeding Heartland user sgarystewart, a gay man living in Ringgold County, posted his open letter to his Republican State Senator Kim Reynolds. I recommend clicking through to read the whole piece, but here are some highlights:

I was born in Mt. Ayr in 1953, and the leading threat to the institution of marriage then, as now, was not Gay marriage, but probably the infidelity that led to my parents divorce.

I should clarify this. It was my father’s infidelity that led to the divorce and bannishment of my Mother, with four siblings and myself to another far-away state. My father, who held marriage sacred, and considered homosexuals less than human, remained here in Iowa, where, after a lives-shattering contested divorce, he remarried in a few short months. […]

Our State Supreme Court’s decision strengthens marriage. It does nothing to diminish the institution, any more than the striking of anti-miscegenation laws of the 50s and 60s did. […]

Personally, gay marriage has never been a big priority to me before this, as I have borne witness to and concentrated on fighting discrimination and gay bashing all my post-adolecent life. But now, I am filled with hope.

Hope for myself, and hope for all the little gay kids growing up, who no longer have only the old stereotypes to model themselves on.

Now disabled, I am low income, and cannot afford a lawyer to draft and file the hundreds of different contracts with my partner that would provide us with a near approximation of the marriage you enjoy and the rights it confers on you and your spouse.

Even if I could afford those contracts, they would not bring me and mine to parity with you and yours.

As one of your constituents, I urge you to recognise Iowa’s proud, progressive history on Civil Rights, and join with me in celebrating the Iowa Supreme Courts marriage decision.

Friday, April 10: Culver repeated that he would not push for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Varnum ruling: “I think we have to be very respectful of the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. This court in a unanimous decision has stated that it is discriminatory to deny people rights that they’re given under the current Constitution.”

Ominously, the same day Danny Carroll and Chuck Hurley of the Iowa Family Policy Center warned that they would target the three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were up for retention in 2010.

Saturday, April 11: I compiled a bunch of comments from Steve King, who was still “royally ticked” about the “unanimous decision on the part of seven unelected Iowa judges who decided to take the law into their own hands and usurp the legitimate authority of the Iowa Legislature […]. By that time I had confirmed that King recorded a robocall paid for by the National Organization for Marriage.

Sunday, April 12: I pondered a “dream scenario” of Grassley drawing a primary challenger in 2010, after some of the senator’s comments about marriage enraged social conservatives.

Tuesday, April 14: I longed for some Republican to take a stand for judicial review, as Vander Plaats and right-wing activist Bill Salier made some particularly extreme comments about blocking the Supreme Court ruling, Rants plotted to add a marriage amendment to a tax reform bill, and State Senator Merlin Bartz pushed for an amendment to allow county recorders not to issue marriage licenses. (The Attorney General’s Office had already stated that once the court’s ruling went into effect, all county recorders would be required to issue licenses to same-sex couples.)

The same day, I posted a brief memo to Iowa’s county recorders:

No one who applies for a marriage license needs your blessing.

According to Republican State Senator Merlin Bartz, at least one of you (or perhaps several of you) may be ready to resign rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. We all can think of marriages we disapprove of, but if your moral objections to marriage equality render you unable to perform the duties of your job, by all means resign. Filling a county government position with good benefits is never a problem, especially in this economy.

Rest assured, as much as you dislike the idea of gays and lesbians getting married, people like me dislike the idea of taxpayer dollars going to someone like you.

April 20, 2009: A post pulled together lots of marriage equality news. A few days earlier, Senate Democrats shut down several attempts to give Iowa’s county recorders the power to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. From Gronstal’s response:

“Well, here’s the crazy part of it. For example, what if a county recorder is morally opposed to mixed race marriages? You know it used to be illegal under Iowa law for mixed race marriages. Well what if you were a county recorder at that time. Does Senator Bartz think they should be able to say “no” to a mixed race couple?

“What about divorced Iowans? Some religions believe it should be “one man, one woman, one time.”? “And under the Bartz approach, your county recorder would be able to say ‘No, I’m a Catholic and you don’t get to have a second marriage. You had your one.’

“Under the Bartz approach if your county recorder didn’t think Catholics should marry Baptists, that would be the law in your county. That’s just so wrong.

“In Iowa, everyone is equal under the law. County recorders don’t get to decide for themselves which laws they will follow and which they won’t.

The same week, Sioux County Attorney Coleman McAllister told County Recorder Anita Van Bruggen that she would be removed from office if she cited religious beliefs as an excuse for not issuing marriage licenses to gay or lesbian couples.

Victoria Hutton of the Iowa Department of Public Health e-mailed all county recorders to affirm that the Varnum decision applied statewide, not just in Polk County.

A clerk for then-State Representative Kent Sorenson tried to tell the Warren County recorder that she didn’t have to process marriage licenses for same-sex couples, because the Varnum ruling was “not a law, it’s an opinion.”

Over the weekend, Grassley appeared on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program, where his comments on the marriage debate left many Republicans unsatisfied. Notably, he refused to endorse efforts to amend Iowa’s constitution.

Adding to the anger on the social conservative wing, a Republican blogger pointed out that the Iowa GOP had gone silent on the marriage issue since state chair Strawn’s press release of April 3.

Vander Plaats was driving traffic to his gubernatorial campaign website through ads on the Drudge Report asking “Should Iowa Allow Gay Marriage?”

Tuesday, April 21: Bartz used his official page on the Iowa Senate Republicans website to push the Iowa Family Policy Center’s petition drive, seeking to pressure county recorders not to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

Thursday, April 23: The LGBT advocacy organization One Iowa went on the air in five Iowa markets to make a positive case for marriage equality.

Around the same time, the National Organization for Marriage was running a nationwide ad against the “storm gathering” on same-sex marriage.

Ed Fallon and his wife Lynn Fallon filed an ethics complaint against Bartz for using the Senate Republican website “to promote breaking the law” by urging county recorders to “refuse to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples on April 27th.”

Saturday, April 25: Visiting a friend in Pella, I found an orange piece of paper on the doorstep. I assumed it was publicity for the famous Tulip Time festival, or some other local event. But the flier compared Senate Minority Leader McKinley to a “chicken,” because he “refuses to do what it takes to get a vote on the Iowa Marriage Amendment.”

Which does he care about more: saving marriage or preserving his relationship with the Democratic leadership, so that he can have a few scraps that fall from their table?

He’s content to just use the issue politically in next year’s elections without actually pushing to let the people vote on the Iowa Marriage Amendment. If he won’t do the right thing now, who’s to say that he’ll do the right thing if he wins the next election? […]

But in order to make an omelet, you need to break some eggs, and in order to force a vote, someone needs to stand up to Gronstal and his millionaire out-of-state homosexual allies.

Sunday, April 26: The Iowa legislature adjourned for the year around 5:00 am, without either chamber voting on a marriage amendment.

Monday, April 27: The first day the Supreme Court ruling went into effect, no couples seeking to get married ran into problems. Culver reminded county recorders of their duty to comply with the decision. Harkin predicted that marriage equality would one day be uncontroversial. Opponents demonstrated in some Iowa cities, but none of the protests turned violent.

Tuesday, April 28: Thinking about the deepening divisions in the GOP, I concluded that Republican moderates didn’t stand a chance. King had held eleven town-hall meetings around Iowa since the Varnum decision: “Of those 11 meetings, 10 of them were full. Most of them were standing room. The marriage issue was the No. 1 issue on their minds. No. 2 was the massive federal spending taking place. In every discussion, immigration came up.” The same post quoted Iowa Christian Alliance leader and Republican National Committee member Steve Scheffler as saying, “I’ve never seen the grass-roots quite as motivated, concerned and angry.”

Thursday, April 30: On day four of legal marriage for all Iowans, more signs of normalcy: the Des Moines Register’s business section ran a feature on gay-friendly wedding planners.

A broad coalition of social justice organizations announced a planned Iowa tour by Alexander Robinson of the National Black Justice Coalition to talk about marriage equality.

Best of all, I still hadn’t heard of a single county recorder refusing to issue a license to a gay or lesbian couple. To our state’s credit, we never did produce a national celebrity like Kim Davis.

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