Iowa Lawmakers Target Families

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday February 2, 2011

Emboldened by voters' rejection of three state Supreme Court justices who upheld the rights of gay and lesbian families, lawmakers in Iowa are pursuing an amendment to the state constitution that would rescind marriage equality--and deny any other form of recognition for same-sex couples.

The Iowa House of Representatives approved the amendment, which must clear both chambers of the state's government for two consecutive legislative sessions before it can go before voters.

A similar amendment stripped say and lesbian families in California of their then-existing marriage rights in 2008, when voters narrowly approved Proposition 8 after a bitter and divisive campaign. Proposition 8 was subsequently found to be unconstitutional in federal court. That verdict is under appeal.

Iowa's Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal has no intention of allowing the rights of some families to be subjected to a popular vote. A Feb. 1 Human Rights Campaign press release noted that Gronstal has said that he will lead efforts to protect the existing rights of gay and lesbian families.

State Senate Democrats blocked an attempt by Republicans on Jan. 27 to introduce a similar proposal as the one later approved by the House, reported Iowa news channel KCRG-TV. The Senate will take up the issue now that the House has passed its own version.

The proposed amendment goes far beyond rescinding the rights of gay and lesbian married couples in Iowa, specifying that same-sex couples will also be denied domestic partnerships and civil unions, the HRC release noted. "House Joint Resolution 6 proposes an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Iowa specifying marriage between one man and one woman as the only legal union that is valid or recognized in the state," the release said.

"The actions of the Iowa House have the potential to place families at risk," Joe Solmonese, the president of HRC, said. "The people of Iowa deserve better from their representatives. Iowa has a proud tradition of protecting the liberties of all of its citizens and we call upon the Senate to restore that tradition."

"The proposed amendment devalues families and divides Iowans," said Carolyn Jensen the executive director of GLBT equality advocacy group One Iowa. "The [state] constitution is meant to protect the freedoms and liberties of all Iowans." Added Jensen, "It is inappropriate to use the political process to single out and deny a group of Iowans of their constitutional protections."

Three Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in the House in voting for the amendment, reported the Des Moines Register on Feb. 1. One of them, Rep. Kurt Swaim, offered the explanation that his constituents would want to see the amendment.

"I represent a conservative district in the state," said Swaim. "Sometimes when I represent my district I have to differ from other members of my caucus that come from more liberal parts of the state."

A GOP state lawmaker, Rep. Rich Anderson, cited the ability of heterosexual couples to have children without intending to as a chief reason for revoking marriage from gay and lesbian families. "We want to drive procreation into a stable relationship, and procreation only happens between a male and a female," said Anderson, the Des Moines Register reported. "See, a male and a female can do something that a homosexual couple cannot: they can create children accidently. That's the issue. It's not about love. It's not about romance. It's about driving state policy toward responsible procreation."

But Democratic lawmaker Phyllis Thede warned that advancing the amendment would backfire, and cited her Christian faith as a reason for preserving equal marriage rights. "All of you here are in some way initiating hatred," Thede told her colleagues. "That is not your intention but you're initiating it." Added Thede, "The one thing that Jesus Christ has taught me to do is to love. To love all people. It doesn't matter who they are, we are to love everyone."

Iowa became the first heartland state to offer marriage equality to gay and lesbian families in 2009, when its Supreme Court found that denying gay and lesbian families marriage violated provisions in the state constitution. Three of the court's justices came up for a retention vote in last November's elections; following a campaign by local and national anti-gay organizations, all three justices--who chose not to counter with a campaign of their own--lost their places on the bench, a result that emboldened anti-gay activists in Iowa and beyond.

The justices' finding was unanimous, but only Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, David Baker, and Michael Streit were up for a retention vote last year. Anti-gay group the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) had vowed to see the justices removed, and predicted that the justices' ouster would serve as a warning to other judges around the nation.

NOM and other out of state interests poured at least $1 million into Iowa in the effort to unseat the justices, while groups supporting the justices raised $200,000. The next retention vote affecting a Supreme Court justice will take place in 2012, when David Wiggins' term expires; the remaining three justices, Brent Appel, Mark Cady, and Daryl Hecht, will face retention votes in 2016.

Local anti-gay activists also played a part. Bob Vander Plaats, a former GOP candidate for the office of governor in Iowa, was a leader in the effort to get the justices voted out. Vander Plaats created a group, Iowans for Freedom, to oust the justices. As the returns were tallied, Vander Plaats hailed the results, saying, "The people of Iowa stood up in record numbers and sent a message ... that it is 'We the people,' not 'We the courts,' " reported the Des Moines Register on Nov. 3, 2010.

The election day result did not reverse the justices' decision, and marriage equality is still legal in the state, but Vander Plaats vowed to put pressure on newly elected Republican governor Terry Branstad to put the rights of Iowa's gay and lesbian families before voters in a Proposition 8-style referendum.

The proposed amendment was approved by the Iowa House by a vote of 62-37.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.