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A Growing Tide: Reaction to Iowa and Vermont's New Gay Marriage Laws

By L. K. Regan

Late last week, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a no-nonsense ruling overturning the state's 1998 law defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Early this week, the Vermont legislature overturned a gubernatorial veto to become the first state to legalize gay marriage through legislative action rather than court order. It is no surprise that the addition of two new gay-marriage-friendly states in such a short time has caused a reaction on both sides of the gay marriage debate. Here's where things stand, a few days into this new world.

Iowa: Calm and Cool
First, Iowa, where anti-marriage activists have questioned the durability of the state court's ruling. In general, Iowans seem underwhelmed by the verdict that is stirring waves of reaction elsewhere. Last week, the University of Iowa released a survey indicating that only 26.2 precent of Iowans approve of same-sex marriages. But since an additional 27.9 percent favor civil unions, it would seem that a bare majority of Iowans would be open to some sort of legal status for gay relationships. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, for many Iowans, the issue of same-sex marriage comes under the heading of "civil rights" rather than "morality". As one Iowan interviewed put it, ""My dad hates it, but he doesn't hate it enough to do anything about it." Or, in the words of another, "It's not my cup of tea, but what people do is their business. The only thing I think is great about it is, it gives a right back to people." And, as one youth leader at Methodist church in Bettendorf, IA put it, "The way I see it, when it comes to political issues, Iowa is a swing state. So if we're one of the first couple of states to pass it, it's going to become mainstream." Gay marriages in the state may begin as soon as April 24th.

Is there anything anti-gay marriage activists can do to stop this tide of tolerance? Perhaps not. Since the Iowa verdict was decided on the grounds of the state constitution, rather than the US constitution, there would appear to be no grounds for appeal to the US Supreme Court. Furthermore, the Polk County Attorney who brought the case has said that he will seek no further legal action. So opponents of gay marriage in Iowa have only one recourse: amending the state constitution. In the words of House Republican leader Kraig Paulsen, "There is now a divide between the legislative and judicial branches and Iowans should be permitted to weigh in and have the final say on this question." US Representative Steve King of Iowa likewise called for electoral and legislative action: "Along with a constitutional amendment, the legislature must also enact marriage license residency requirements so that Iowa does not become the gay marriage Mecca due to the Supreme Court's latest experiment in social engineering." Since an amendment to the state constitution could probably not be put on the ballot until 2012, if Iowa is to become a gay marriage mecca, it will have several years to do so before the legislative process can intervene.

The effort to amend the state constitution will not easily come to pass, however. On Friday, the Iowa Senate Majority Leader, Mike Gronstal, and Pat Murphy, Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, issued a joint statement in which they said, "When all is said and done, we believe the only lasting question about today's events will be why it took us so long. It is a tough question to answer because treating everyone fairly is really a matter of Iowa common sense and Iowa common decency.... Today, we congratulate the thousands of Iowans who now can express their love for each other and have it recognized by our laws." Such unequivocal language indicates that anyone looking to introduce a constitutional amendment overturning the Iowa court's decision is likely to meet with a substantial fight—and the Iowa governor, Chet Culver, who is opposed to same-sex marriage, has announced that he is reluctant to take up that fight.

Vermont: Epic Override
Vermont's override of a gubernatorial veto to legalize gay marriage stands even more securely outside the reach of legislative or court action. The vote of the Vermont legislature on Tuesday had truly historic implications, ones that trouble gay marriage opponents. While Iowa, Massachusetts, and Connecticut all have same-sex marriages, all of those states instituted those marriages under the order of courts that had struck down existing laws limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. California, during the few months that is also had gay marriages, was likewise acting under the order of the state's Supreme Court. The claims made by people like, for example, Iowa representative Steve King, who said of his state court's ruling that, "This is an unconstitutional ruling and another example of activist judges molding the Constitution to achieve their personal political ends," cannot be leveled at Vermont's process. Vermont therefore provides a model for other states' progress to gay marriages. As Boston University law professor Linda McClain, an expert on family law and policy, told the AP, "What may give courage to other legislatures is that this legislature managed to do it."

Governor Jim Douglas of Vermont framed the issue negatively, as well he might given the rebuke he was sent by the legislature. "What really disappoints me," he said, "is that we have spent some time on an issue during which another thousand Vermonters have lost their jobs. We need to turn out attention to balancing a budget without raising taxes, growing the economy, putting more people to work." Given that opinion, one wonders why he did not simply accept the will of the legislature the first time around.

Washington, DC: The Next Battleground?
Perhaps he did not do so because the feeling of a growing tide is becoming palpable. On Tuesday, the Washington, DC city council voted to recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal. The council approved the measure by a unanimous 12-person vote; a final vote will be taken on May 5. Council members signaled that they consider this measure a first step; council member Jim Graham told the press that "the writing is on the wall" with regard to future gay marriages in the city, and that, "We are now taking the issue directly to Congress." This last mention of Congress introduces an interesting twist on the next step in this tide of legalization: Washington, DC is under Home Rule, meaning that its legislative action comes under the supervision of the U.S. Congress. The U.S. government, under the Defense of Marriage Act, is forbidden from considering any union a marriage that is not contracted between one man and one woman, no matter where it is performed and under what legal system. Ultimately, Congress may have to choose between the DoMA and the will of an elected body of officials. With Iowa and Vermont paving the way, activists are hopeful that the nation's capitol may the next place to legalize gay marriages.