CEDAR RAPIDS – The former Iowa Supreme Court chief justice who lost a 2010 retention vote because of public opposition to the 2009 ruling that allowed same-sex marriage received an honorary doctorate from Coe College in Cedar Rapids today “for her role in our generation’s effort to understand and give life to the of equal protection under the law.”
Marsha Ternus, who had been Iowa’s first woman chief justice, delivered Coe’s commencement address after receiving the honorary doctor of law degree without once mentioning the ruling.
Ternus, who grew up on a farm near Vinton, delivered the kind of earnest, insightful, practical commencement speech you expect to hear at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. She warned graduate they might have to take a job they don’t much like at first, and about making family, community service and volunteering high priorities.
Yet Ternus placed special emphasis on character.
“Your character will impact how successful you are in your career, if you are a good spouse should you marry, whether you are a good role model for your children, and whether you a positive influence on your community – whether you leave the world a better place than you found it,” Ternus said.
If there was any reference to the events surrounding the same-sex marriage ruling at all in Ternus’ speech, it may have been in her final remarks regarding the “degenerating quality of public discourse and increasing polarization of our society, even in Iowa.”
Ternus listed the points in the Character Counts program used in Iowa’s public schools. She urged graduates to exercise responsibility, respect, fairness and to be involved citizens.
“Be honorable. Be reliable. Have the courage to do the right thing,” she said.
Judicial retention activists have carried signs in Cedar Rapids as recently as Friday, and Coe College spokesman Rod Pritchard said college leaders wondered if there would be protests. There were none.
In the case, same-sex couples argued that they were denied the rights of ordinary married couples such as the right to make end-of-life decisions for their partners and the rights to be regarded as a family for child-raising purposes.
A organized campaign was waged against justices Ternus, Michael Streit and David L. Baker, the only three who participated in the unanimous decision that were up for retention votes. Opponents claimed their ruling went against the will of the people. All were defeated.
Ternus’ remarks on Sunday drew receptive applause.
Grinnell College student Amy Graves was attending the graduation of a friend. She liked Ternus’ selection as commencement speaker and her speech, although she would have liked to hear more about the same-sex marriage decision.
“There was a distinct absence of any mention of it in her talk, which she probably thought was the best thing to do, Graves said.
Matt Whitlock of Cedar Rapids was attending his wife’s graduation, but didn’t seem to want to be drawn into any debates over the commencement address.
“I just thought it was a good speech,” he said quietly, adding that he shared Ternus views.
About 280 graduating seniors received degrees from Coe on Sunday. An honorary doctor of divinity degree was presented to Rev. William Stacy Johnson, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.