10 years of marriage equality in Iowa

Ten years ago today, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously held in Varnum v Brien that the state’s Defense of Marriage Act “violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.”

Justice Mark Cady wrote the opinion, which cost three of his colleagues (Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, Justice David Baker, and Justice Michael Streit) their jobs in the 2010 judicial retention elections. Assigned the task of writing by random drawing, Cady “strongly believed the court should speak in one voice” on such a controversial matter, Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen wrote in their 2015 book Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality. In fact, Cady “was convinced there was no room for even a concurring opinion–an opinion in agreement with the court’s conclusion but not its reasoning.” (pp. 134-5)

Thousands of Iowans have enjoyed a better quality of life since our state became the third to give LGBTQ couples the right to marry. Lambda Legal, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of six Iowa couples, has posted a timeline of key events in the case. State Senator Zach Wahls wrote today about the Supreme Court decision’s impact on his family.

I wanted to mark this day by sharing highlights from Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of that historic event. My deepest condolences go out to the friends and relatives of former Supreme Court Justice Daryl Hecht. The Iowa Judicial Branch announced today that Hecht has died. He stepped down from the bench in December 2018 while battling melanoma. Of the seven justices who joined the Varnum opinion, only Cady, Brent Appel, and David Wiggins still serve on the high court.

I felt optimistic the Iowa Supreme Court would affirm the Polk County District Court’s ruling, which struck down the law limiting marriage rights to heterosexual couples. As the high court prepared to hear oral arguments in December 2008, I published three posts:

The Iowa Supreme Court will not end the political battle over gay marriage (with thoughts about how to cope with a possible backlash in the event of a favorable ruling)

New thread on Varnum v Brien and gay marriage (with highlights from the Iowa Supreme Court oral arguments)

A guest author summarized key points from Judge Robert Hanson’s ruling in Polk County District Court.

While the case was pending in February 2009, I encouraged Bleeding Heartland readers to “get ready to make the case for gay marriage” with their friends and relatives and recalled what is still one of my favorite Iowa marriage equality stories.

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.

I recall hearing rumors at a Democratic event on the evening of April 2, 2009 that we would have reason to celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling the following morning. I later learned that legislative leaders were tipped by a request for extra security at the Iowa Supreme Court building. (Presumably the judicial branch would not have been concerned about security if they planned to uphold the same-sex marriage ban.)

On April 3, I reported the big news in one post and later published Iowa Democratic reaction. Governor Chet Culver released a cautious statement about his plans to review the decision. U.S. Representative Leonard Boswell said he respected the court’s decision. 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” conclusion.

Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal welcomed the ruling. Their statement highlighted Iowa’s long history of being “a leader in guaranteeing all of our citizens’ equal rights.” I believe the way Murphy and Gronstal reacted to this momentous event will be remembered as a high point in their legislative careers.

On April 4, I covered early Iowa Republican reaction to the Varnum decision. Senator Chuck Grassley and Representative Tom Latham released boilerplate expressions of disappointment, while Representative Steve King was his usual attention-getting self: “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, then the front-runner among likely Republican candidates for governor, was eager to capitalize on discontent about the ruling. Then Iowa GOP state party chair Matt Strawn released an incoherent statement.

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

The following Monday, April 6, I published The coming battle to amend the Iowa Constitution. That post covered two 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.

On April 7, Gronstal dared conservatives to push for a state 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.

Speaker Murphy stepped up to the plate on April 9, blocking multiple attempts to force a marriage vote in the Iowa House.

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.

On April 10, I was happy to report that Culver repeated he would not seek to overturn the Varnum ruling. From his statement: “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.”

Unfortunately, the same day I had to report on comments from Danny Carroll and Chuck Hurley of the Iowa Family Policy Center: Religious right will target three Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010.

I compiled a bunch of comments from Steve King on April 11. He 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.

Meanwhile, some social conservatives weren’t happy with Grassley’s comments about marriage.

As Republican lawmakers continued to search for ways to pass a marriage amendment or overturn the Supreme Court ruling by other means (such as allowing county recorders to opt out of issuing marriage licenses), I put out a call on April 14 for Republicans who understand judicial review to speak up.

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.

Later in April, I pulled together more threads with marriage equality news and criticized State Senator Merlin Bartz for using 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.

Nearly three weeks after the Supreme Court published its ruling, the LGBT advocacy organization One Iowa went on the air in five television 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.”

Visiting a friend in Pella on April 25, 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.”

I was happy to report on April 26 that the Iowa legislature had adjourned for the year around 5:00 am, without either chamber voting on a marriage amendment.

When the Supreme Court ruling went into effect on April 27, 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.

Thinking about the deepening divisions in the GOP, I argued on April 28 that Republican moderates didn’t stand a chance of getting the upper hand in their party. King had held eleven town-hall meetings around Iowa since the Varnum decision. 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.”

On the last day of April 2009, I pulled together more links about marriage equality, which continued to be going smoothly for happy couples, despite conservative efforts to whip up outrage. I never did hear of a single county recorder refusing to issue a license to a gay or lesbian couple.

Bleeding Heartland has continued to cover marriage equality and other issues of importance to LGBTQ Iowans. Click here for all posts tagged “marriage equality.” I want to close out this piece with links that seem particularly significant:

Impeachment going nowhere and other Iowa Supreme Court news (about the 2011 effort by a few Iowa House Republicans to impeach the justices who had joined the Varnum opinion)

Huge day for marriage equality in Iowa (on the day after the 2012 general election, I highlighted key results that “slammed the door on any prospect of overturning marriage equality” here)

Judge rules Iowa must list both same-sex parents on child’s death certificate (about a 2012 Polk County District Court ruling that relied heavily on the Varnum decision)

More Iowa Republicans coming out for marriage equality (highlighting public statements by Jeff Angelo, Brent Oleson, and David Kochel)

Iowa House: Birthplace and graveyard for marriage and abortion bills (this post from 2013 noted the declining number of House Republican lawmakers willing to co-sponsor a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage)

Another Iowa Supreme Court ruling for equality (about a 2013 decision, which held that it is unconstitutional for the Iowa Department of Public Health to refuse to list a non-birthing lesbian spouse on a child’s birth certificate)

Iowa House Republicans accept marriage equality but can’t admit it yet (this piece from February 2015 noted that only twelve of the 57 House Republicans co-sponsored the latest version of a same-sex marriage ban; the same year, eleven of the 24 Republican state senators signed on to similar legislation)

Same-sex marriage ban dies without a whimper in Iowa House (about the failure of a constitutional amendment to clear the first “funnel” in the Republican-controlled House in 2015)

Iowa reaction to Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality (following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges; Steve King later encouraged states to disregard that majority opinion)

Three cheers for Iowa’s county recorders (expressing relief that Iowa never produced a national celebrity like Kim Davis of Kentucky)

Throwback Thursday: Curt Hanson’s cricual Iowa House special election victory (recounting the first Iowa legislative election following the Varnum decision; that Democratic win in September 2009 was important for holding Democratic lawmakers together the following year, as Republicans continued to push for a vote on a constitutional amendment)

Prominent Iowa Republican moderate switches parties (marriage equality was an important factor in Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson’s decision)

Reflection on a five-year anniversary (Zach Wahls wrote this post five years after his speech at an Iowa House public hearing on a marriage amendment went viral)

Rest in peace, Larry Hoch (remembering one of the Varnum plaintiffs, who passed away in 2016)

Iowans remember Donna Red Wing (collecting reflections on the former leader of One Iowa, who passed away last year; One Iowa staff later wrote their own remembrance)

Post-modern queer youth experience (in this thought-provoking piece from September 2018, Iowa Safe Schools executive director Nate Monson argued that an excessive focus on marriage equality had led the LGBTQ community to overlook important barriers affecting LGBTQ youth)

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin