A year later, same-sex marriage debate still alive


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Gay-rights activists across Iowa are celebrating the one-year anniversary of an Iowa Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized same-sex marriage.

While they tally each of Iowa’s more than 2,000 gay and lesbian unions as wins, they insist same-sex marriage in Iowa is a means to equality rather than an end.

But opponents of gay marriage vow the fight isn’t over.

Reversing last year’s court ruling would require an amendment to the state Constitution defining gay marriage. Democrats succeeded in blocking bills proposed by Republicans in both houses of the Iowa Legislature that would have restricted civil marriage to unions among straight couples.

Republican leaders in the state say ending gay marriage is less about civil rights and more about ensuring the law reflects the views of Iowans.

“I don’t believe the Supreme Court should be making law, and that’s what it did in this case,” said Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, who cosponsored the Senate version of the bill to amend the constitution. “The issue comes down to letting the people of Iowa decide what the definition of marriage should be.”

Johnson stopped short of explaining why Iowans are worse off today than a year ago, saying the ill effects of gay marriage are long-term.

Sen. Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, another cosponsor of the legislation, said even some proponents of same-sex marriage support a vote on the issue.

“It needs to be the people. If people are going to live with this and accept it, they need to feel they’ve had a say in it,” McKinley said.

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Both Johnson and McKinley said they’re personally opposed to gay marriage.

It’s not clear how a gay-marriage vote would turn out. Polls have found most Iowans don’t support the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling, but they do support some sort of same-sex union. Many voters don’t care either way.

Beyond the battle at the state level, the Iowa Supreme Court’s move to legalize same-sex marriage “has transformed the conversation nationally,” said Camilla Taylor, an attorney with Lambda Legal.

Taylor — the architect of the plaintiff’s case in Varnum v. Brien — said the environment today is different from what it was a year ago, when the same-sex marriage decision was handed down.

Then, only two other states — Connecticut and Massachusetts — married gay couples. Now, six jurisdictions in the United States allow gay marriage, and a handful of others recognize vows made in other states.

November’s legislative elections will provide an unofficial test for the court’s ruling. Moves to support or block gay marriage are contingent upon one party having significant weight in both houses of the Iowa Legislature.

“As it stands today, we have a fair-minded majority in both the Iowa House and the Iowa Senate,” said Brad Clark, a campaign manager with gay-rights group One Iowa. “A significant number of those seats are up in November … We have our work cut out for us to protect this majority.”

Elected officials from the Iowa City area — all of whom support the ruling to allow gay marriage — said they’re confident Johnson County voters won’t resent their positions.

“We want to do everything we can here to support that diversity and support the families who have same-sex couples and live in this community,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, who played a key role in blocking traditional marriage legislation this year. “Those are my constituents. I want that diversity; I think it adds to the quality of life here.”

Gay marriage will also likely play a role in this year’s gubernatorial election.

Gov. Chet Culver, the incumbent Democrat in the race, has shifted his position on the issue. A year ago, he lent “reluctant” support the Iowa Supreme Court decision, while reaffirming his personal opposition to same-sex marriages. But last week, his tone changed when he said, about the anniversary of the ruling, “we stood firm for the civil rights of every Iowan.”

On the Republican side, the two viable gubernatorial hopefuls both oppose same-sex marriage, but to starkly different degrees.

Bob Vander Plaats has made marriage the centerpiece of his campaign. Former Gov. Terry Branstad has told reporters Iowans should be able to vote, but his campaign website mentions “marriage” fewer than a dozen times; Vanderplaats’ mentions the same word more than 150 times.

Despite the political discourse, some predict social issues will hold relatively little weight for voters.

“As people continue to lose their jobs and the economy is in the state that it is, I don’t think people want to be concentrating on taking away folks’ rights,” One Iowa’s Clark said.

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