Momentum in Iowa still favors same-sex marriage

Five years after legalization, some hope for “a new day”

Mike Wiser
Published: March 3 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:04 am in

One Iowa is throwing a bash on April 5 that already has generated some buzz on the floor of the Iowa House of Representatives.

One Iowa is the state’s largest LGBTQ — that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning — advocacy group.

The April party celebrates the fifth anniversary of Varnum v. Brien, the unanimous Iowa Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

“That decision probably made me as proud to be an Iowan as any time I’ve been here,” said Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, who announced the party last week on the House floor.

Not all were happy. Traditional marriage advocates immediately fought back, launching a successful campaign to oust three of the judges who were on the 2010 ballot for retention.

But victories for one-man, one-woman marriage proponents have been few and far between since. In the past two sessions, they’ve struggled to get even Republican supporters signed on to bills to codify opposite-sex marriage in Iowa.

House Judiciary Chairman Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, heads the committee where many of the traditional marriage bills have died.

“I would tell supporters that you have to win the culture war before you can win the political one,” he said.


Nearly 6,000 same-sex couples married in Iowa between 2009 and 2012, according to figures from the Iowa Department of Public Health. The actual number is likely higher because the state doesn’t require individuals to submit gender information on marriage records.

“As you know, battles like this ebb and flow,” said Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center.

The group is part of the Family Leader organization, which led recall efforts to remove Iowa Supreme Court judges in 2010 and 2012. They were successful the first year, but not two years latter.

“There are still 30 out of 50 states that have clear prohibitions on same-sex, so-called, marriage,” Hurley said.

He said the pendulum will swing back in favor of traditional marriage, permanently.

“We have thousands of years of tradition and teaching over all the major faiths,” he said.

Still, the momentum is against his viewpoint for the time being.

Iowa was the third state to legalize gay marriage. Now 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized same-sex marriage. Illinois’ same-sex marriage law goes into effect for the entire state this summer.

Just last week, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a measure that would have allowed businesses to turn away same-sex couples. That same day, a federal judge in Texas struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was in Iowa, said Brewer made the right decision, although he is personally opposed to same-sex marriage and criticized the Texas court decision.

“I think we’re winning, and I think our opponents know that,” said Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa.

She said the group is taking on other issues, such HIV decriminalization and care for the LGBTQ elderly.

She points to a One Iowa-commissioned poll taken in July 2013 of 500 registered voters that showed 51 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed to allowing same-sex couples to marry. The poll has not been made public until now, and Red Wing would release only certain parts of it.

“It’s the first time we had those results, and it happened very fast,” she said. “We’re certainly post-narrative.”

Political reality

At 8:20 a.m. on Feb. 4, state Rep. Dwayne Alons, R-Hull, sent an e-mail to his fellow Republicans.

“I have another version of the marriage amendment that adds the word ‘natural’ before ‘man’ and ‘woman.’ This is for your consideration to support traditional marriage, which is in our platform and keep it before the people in this election year,” his email began. It ended with a note that the legislation was on his desk if anyone wanted to sign.

“I think I finally had 13 or 14,” Alons said last week.

He admitted it’s a different feeling now from 2011 when the House held open hearings on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and all of the then-60 GOP members signed the legislation.

“What happened is we know it’s not going anywhere in the Senate, so I think they think, 'Why bother?'” Alons said.

There’s truth in that: The Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate has not allowed a vote on same-sex marriage onto the floor since the Varnum decision. But same-sex marriage advocates also have continued to make gains in this state.

Twice, the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex couples who wanted their marital status and gender be recorded on official documents, in one case a birth certificate and, in another, a death certificate.

State Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who became the first openly gay member of the Iowa General Assembly when he was outted on the Senate floor by former Sen. Ken Veenstra of Orange City in 2004, thinks the gay marriage “issue is resolved.”

With a caveat.

“If Republicans would gain control of the Senate and retain control of the House, then I think it would be a new day for that debate,” he said.

Still, he said, if it were taken to a vote of the general population — as many Republicans, including Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, say they want — the same-sex marriage advocates would win.

“I think it would be an extremely expensive exercise, and I think it would be very divisive and very polarizing,” he said. “Ultimately, I have no doubt that Iowans would reject efforts to change the existing law … I think Iowans support and embrace marriage equality for all.”

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