Iowa joins Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont as the four states now with legalized gay marriage. Only Vermont has approved such a measure outside the court system, doing so just days after the Iowa decision. Additionally, it is possible that a recent measure in the District of Columbia could land the issue before Congress, which has the final say on laws governing the district.
Yet, it was the ruling in Iowa that has brought this issue front and center in the nation’s heartland.
‘Frankly, I’m saddened’
The Iowa Supreme Court decision did not come as a surprise to those following the issue closely in the state.
“I knew the decision was coming at some point,” said Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference. “The decision was not a surprise considering the makeup of the court. We were as prepared as we were going to be. It’s fair to say that it’s a disappointment.”
Chapman is left in the uncomfortable position of watching same-sex couples wed for at least two years. For a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to pass in Iowa, it must be approved in two consecutive legislative sessions and then go to the voters in a referendum. Even if an amendment were to pass in the current session, it would need to be approved again next year and voters wouldn’t have their say until 2011 at the earliest.
Iowa Gov. Chet Culver acknowledged that marriage between a man and a woman remains a “tenet” of his personal faith but said he “reluctant to support” an effort to amend the state constitution. Culver said that the ruling will not force churches and other religious institutions to perform gay marriages.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats reiterated his call for Culver to sign an executive order Monday to block same-sex marriages from taking place amid protests against the court decion at the state Capitol. Vander Plaats said he would sign such an order if elected, even if its constitutionality is debated.
Without last-minute intervention, same-sex couples can get licenses Apr. 27 and get married as early as Apr. 30.
“The protection of marriage is an uphill climb under the best of circumstances,” Chapman said. “It becomes a little tougher when the leadership of the Senate and the House have said they don’t want to debate it. People have weighed in and so far we’ve already received thousands of e-mails from a lot of different groups expressing their support. It’s not a done deal, but it is an uphill climb.”
The leader of the Catholic Church in the Des Moines Diocese, Bishop Richard Pates, took a firm stand against ruling in a statement issued after the decision.
“I wholeheartedly joined as one of the Catholic bishops of Iowa in strongly disagreeing with the decision of the Iowa Supreme Court which struck down Iowa’s law defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman,” Pates said.
Chapman said he expects the marriage issue to be a hot topic leading up to legislative elections in 2010 when the entire 100-member House and half of the Senate will be voted upon.
“Frankly, I’m saddened,” he said. “Our perspective is that marriage existed before the state and can’t be re-defined by it. It was tough to read the decision, but now it’s back to work. In politics not many victories last forever. We have to keep working on it.”
Matter of equality for some clergy
The judges’ ruling was clear in separating religious arguments from civil rights arguments and treated the marriage issue through the lens of discrimination.
And that is precisely the way it should be, according to Pastor Brent Watkins.
Watkins is associate pastor at River of Life Ministries in Cedar Rapids and a member of the Linn County Association of Evangelicals. His views in favor of same-sex marriage have put him at odds with his senior pastor and others in the association.
“These views are strictly my own,” Watkins stressed.
His opinion, which he has posted as a note on his Facebook page, quotes Jeremiah 31:3 and the well-known biblical story of Jesus telling a mob that the one without sin should cast the first stone (John 8:3-11) as a scriptural basis for his views.
“It’s unfortunate I’ve taken a divergent path from conservative evangelism, but that is why we have personal convictions,” Watkins said. “I feel this is what God is speaking to me.”
On Facebook he wrote that he disagrees with the idea of homosexual marriage but believes the evangelical community would be better served by reflecting the love of Christ and gain trust amongst gays and lesbians.
“My friends, we have a choice,” Watkins wrote. “We can expend an incredible amount of energy taking this path (fighting for a constitutional amendment), with no assurance of success, or we can try something novel: We can do what Jesus did. We can love our brothers and sisters as Christ first loved us.”
Watkins goes on to say that the political movement of some within evangelical circles has been misguided and needs a change of course.
“For the past 25 years, a segment of evangelical Christianity aligned itself with a political conservative movement. That alignment, in my opinion, ravaged our witness by confusing temporal political issues with eternal theological truths.
“We evangelicals have become known amongst non-believers not so much for our love, but for our fears: Fear of the “gay agenda” fear of “taking God out of the schools” fear of illegal aliens, the list goes on and on.
“This posture simply does not reflect the Christ I know and seek to represent.”
‘Not over yet’
Watkins is very aware he isn’t in unanimity with other religious leaders and public policy groups. It’s clear political and social rifts are deep on the issue.
“Marriage is, by definition, between one man and one woman,” Keith A. Ratliff, pastor of Maple Street Missionary Baptist Church in Des Moines, said during a news conference following the decision.
That’s a sentiment echoed and shared in a broader social context by Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center (IFPC).
“This means, by force of law, every schoolchild in Iowa will be taught that homosexuality is equal to heterosexual behavior,” he said.
The center has sponsored rallies at the Capitol and has begun a public push for a constitutional amendment.
A brochure available on its site encourages amendment supporters to take a biblically-based stand on the issue. It quotes the following verses: Genesis 18-19, 2 Chronicles 7:14, Ephesians 5:22-23, Matthew 5:13-16, 22:21 and most prominently 1 Corinthians 6:9b-11, which partially states, “Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.”
Bryan English, communications director for the IFPC, said the ruling caught a fair number of state residents by surprise that weren’t tuned in to the courts.
“Anybody who is on our mailing list and active was warned this was a possibility,” English said. “The average Iowan wasn’t paying attention and just minding their own business.
“We have had some nasty e-mails and the occasional phone calls. There have certainly been harsh responses to our positions on blog posts and in response to newspaper articles. I do have to say, though, last Thursday when we had a rally at the Capitol there was a small group in favor of the decision there. From everything I saw, I was impressed with the decorum.”
Such decorum may be harder to come by as the political and social debate progresses. English said the IFPC has a political action committee which will “be very involved, probably to a greater degree than we ever have been” in upcoming elections.
He also echoed Hurley’s concerns about the debate entering education and religious arenas beyond the courts. He cited parental concerns in Massachusetts over schools addressing same-sex marriage on the same footing as traditional marriage.
“If a pastor is charged with a hate crime for not conducting a gay wedding or if a parent is jailed protesting homosexuality being taught in school that will change things,” English said. “Iowans are pretty fair-minded people but they won’t put up with that type of behavior, so we’ll see what happens.”
Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Focus on the Family, which has had a long-standing position against same-sex marriage, did not waver on its stand regarding Iowa.
“The Iowa Supreme Court opened the door to all kinds of ‘marriage’ by using logic so broad and defective that the decision could well include polygamy,” said Focus senior vice president Tom Minnery in a statement. “This ruling tramples on the will of Iowa citizens who enacted a law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman in 1998 to help ensure every Iowan child had a chance to be raised in a household by a married mom and a dad.
“The people of Iowa can have the last say on what social policy guides their lives by passing a marriage amendment like 30 other states have done.”
Waiting for Apr. 27
The court’s ruling will immediately impact people like Arthur Breur.
A friend of Watkins, Breur is editor-in-chief of ACCESSline: Iowa’s LGBT Newspaper. LGBT is a common acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
He said it has been difficult to separate his professional obligations to report news of the decision objectively and sort through personal excitement over the issue.
“It’s still hard to believe,” Breur said, who has been living for the past 13 years with a domestic partner.
“We’ve always considered ourselves a committed couple,” Breur explained. “We have papers with us and powers of attorney to be able to visit one another in the hospital and in other circumstances. I’m happy our relationship will be recognized by the state, although we will still need the paperwork when we travel.”
Bruer thinks the fact that same-sex marriages will take place before any vote on an amendment happens is to the gay community’s advantage.
“My fear is ending up being married and having the joy of that recognition and normalcy end two, four, six years down the road in a forcible divorce,” he said.
Breur also disagreed with the notion espoused by the Iowa Family Policy Center that the decision will lead to sweeping changes in public education about sexuality.
“I don’t agree with the idea that we are now going to have talk about alternative forms of sexuality in kindergarten,” he said. “Any education still needs to age-appropriate. To me, it’s all about what children need to understand. I have a 3-year-old nephew who understands he has two uncles and just leave it. It doesn’t need to be discussed beyond that.”
Full court brief from the Iowa Supreme Court: http://www.judicial.state.ia.us/wfData/files/Varnum/07-1499.pdf
Iowa Family Policy Center:
Focus on the Family: