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Democrats should be commended for making gay marriage a nonissue

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JANUARY 22, 2010 7:30 AM

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Gay marriage in Iowa is here to stay.

Reaffirming their position from last legislative session, courageously intransigent Democrats have vowed not to allow any debate on the issue. The decision seals off any possibility of action on same-sex marriage during this year’s legislative session, which began last week.

Democratic leaders “just don’t feel that we ought to make a change to the state’s Constitution that would enshrine discrimination in it as it relates to marriage equality,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. In addition, they “don’t want to spend the time on what is a pretty divisive issue.”

Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature. In order to amend the Iowa Constitution — and quash the Supreme Court’s ruling — lawmakers must pass a resolution in two-consecutive sessions.

The resolution is then submitted to voters for ratification.

Moral judgments aside, the referendum question — and Democrats’ halting of debate over gay marriage — is one of political philosophy. Should citizens be able to interpret the parameters of certain rights enshrined in the Constitution, or should lawmakers and, ultimately, the courts determine the extent of those rights?

For his part, Bolkcom rightly eschewed plebiscitary democracy.

“I’m not sure we want to have every question before voters,” he said.

State referendums in such places as California have often proved disastrous, with some tying the hands of lawmakers on revenue issues (Proposition 13) and others clearly amounting to majority tyranny (Proposition 8).

Most states have rightly rejected that form of democratic governance in favor of one similar to Iowa’s that is, admittedly more elitist but provides stronger bulwarks against majority tyranny through checks and balances.

On marriage equality, legislators should heed the words of Walter Lippmann, the pre-eminent journalist and public philosopher of the 20th century. In an ever-changing electorate — due to deaths, age progression, etc. — Lippmann was wary of an omnipotent “transient majority” that could subjugate a politically powerless minority. Ours is a perfect example.

A voting electorate disproportionately composed of elderly citizens — with often anachronistic views on sexuality and equality — shouldn’t be empowered to overturn last April’s forward-thinking ruling.

Sen. Merlin Bartz, R-Grafton, is one of the cosponsors of a joint resolution that seeks to put the question up to voters. He objects to the Supreme Court’s “insulation” from the public and its granting of “special status” to gay couples.

“They evidently are not listening to the citizens of the state,” Bartz said. “If they were listening to the citizens of the state … they may have come up with a different conclusion.”

It’s unclear if Iowa voters would overturn the ruling if given the chance. A September Des Moines Register poll showed that 41 percent of Iowa voters would vote in favor of a constitutional ban on gay marriage, while 40 percent said they would oppose such a ban.

But the sheer possibility of a majority voting to strip gay couples of their right to marry is reason enough for legislative Democrats’ imperviousness. They are right to block debate and action on the issue because the judicial branch is one of the triumvirate linchpins of our democracy.

If American courts simply heeded public opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court would not have struck down segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. The justices wouldn’t have rejected anti-interracial marriage laws in Loving v. Virginia. And the Iowa Supreme Court wouldn’t have unanimously ruled on the side of same-sex marriage last April.

The Supreme Court’s chief duty is to interpret the Constitution — not reflect the opinion of the electorate.

Legislative Democrats have acted admirably since the ruling. Rejecting the amorphousness of Chet Culver’s response, they have not only chosen to be on the right side of marriage equality, they favor a government premised on rationality, rule of law, and protections for the minority.

And for that, they should be applauded.


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