Iowa View: Five years after ruling, Iowans reflect on gay marriage changes

March 31, 2014 — The Des Moines Register, Iowa View

Five years ago this week, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a ruling that has taken its place alongside other landmark decisions by the Iowa court. The court’s legacy of groundbreaking civil rights decisions goes all the way back to the very first ruling the court issued, when Iowa was still a territory.

The latest of these landmark cases was decided on April 3, 2009, when the Iowa Supreme Court issued its decision in Varnum v. Brien. The case challenged the constitutionality of Iowa’s marriage law, which limited marriage to a man and a woman and prevented same-sex couples from enjoying the legal benefits of marriage.

The unanimous decision by the justices said Iowa’s marriage statute is unconstitutional because it violates the equal-protection clause of the state’s constitution. The ruling specifically said that churches could not be forced to violate their religious beliefs by hosting same-sex weddings.

The decision was a huge victory for proponents of gay marriage. A middle-of-the-road state in the middle of the country became one of the earliest states to allow same-sex marriages.

Five years later, we put this question to a variety of Iowans: “How has the institution of marriage changed in Iowa in the five years since the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in Varnum v. Brien?”

They share their views in the commentaries that follow.

— Randy Evans, Opinion Editor

Connie Ryan Terrell, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa:

People stood on the steps of the Iowa Supreme Court on a glorious spring morning. What would the court do? Some hoping for official affirmation of what in their hearts they already knew to be true. Others hoping against hope that, based on their personal religious beliefs, they could hoard those rights and privileges.

Then the news came, as if from on high. The Iowa Constitution does ensure equal protection. Everyone does have the right to marry the person they love. Simple yet profound affirmation that rights and privileges must be available to all.

In the last five years, that is what same-gender couples have received in Iowa, equal protection, just like any other hardworking family. That mysterious “gay agenda” includes going to work and worship. Attending school concerts. Paying taxes. Caring for loved ones in sickness and in health. Living every day as family.

The sky has not fallen in Iowa. Houses of worship remain protected to make their own decision on same-gender ceremonies. For same-gender families, however, the sky has opened up, creating real opportunities.

What has changed in the last five years? Nothing for most; everything for some. And, in the words of one pastor, that is simply awesome.

Bishop Richard E. Pates, Catholic Diocese of Des Moines:

According to several indicators, there is a growing acceptance of same-sex marriage nationwide, and there’s no reason to think that’s not true in Iowa. I believe most people who support same-sex marriage do so in good will, but I think there is much more than good will involved.

First, many of us can agree on this: God loves everyone, gay or straight. No one is excluded, and sexual identity is only one component of who we are. Gay people are welcome in the Catholic Church. Many of them are hurting from hateful attitudes, and as Pope Francis has said, Christians should see themselves less as enforcers of rules than as doctors in a field hospital.

Furthermore, all of us, not just gay people, are challenged to approach our sexuality in a responsible and mature manner.

This said, the church holds that marriage is the union of a man and a woman and is the best way to nurture and protect children. This position is based on the solid teaching of Scripture and our own tradition about its meaning, which is derived from “natural law” deeply embedded in the humanity of each of us by a loving creator.

Despite what the Iowa court has ruled, we also believe that limiting marriage to a man and woman is best for the common good and the future of society.

Jonathan Wilson, a Des Moines lawyer who is the son of a minister:

The Varnum decision continued a long history in the evolution of marriage as an institution. Starting with biblically endorsed polygamy, marriage evolved to a point that preserved the institution premised upon concepts of property — women were the property. The age of consent to marry also evolved. Mary would not have been legally able to marry Joseph under current Iowa law.

Awaiting that evolutionary process, inter-denominational marriages were uncommon, and interracial marriages virtually nonexistent. The latter were actually a crime in many states until the U.S. Supreme Court changed that in 1967. By 2013, nearly half of all marriages in the U.S. were interfaith, and there were 4.8 million inter<HH>racial marriages.

In the early 1970s, marriage further evolved with the elimination of “fault divorce.” No longer did one of the partners have to be found at fault (and the other not at fault) for a civil marriage to be dissolved.

The Varnum decision continued the evolution of marriage. I believe each of those changes strengthened the institution. Is it a surprise that most folks who don’t believe in evolution itself also oppose this most recent change in marriage? I think not. Isn’t enlightenment wonderful?

Marriage as an institution is stronger today than ever before.

Chuck Hurley, an official of the Family Leader, a social issues advocacy organization:

The seven Iowa Supreme Court Judges who tried to redefine God’s first institution — marriage — remind me a lot of Bruce Braley.

Mr. Braley recently said that someone with a law degree, rather than Sen. Grassley (with common sense), is better able to lead the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Well, the judges all have law degrees, and they lead Iowa’s judiciary. But Sen. Grassley, and millions of other Iowans who don’t have law degrees, have the common sense to know what marriage really is.

As Congressman Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said right after the Varnum decision, “The Iowa judges think they are smarter than nature.” Common-sense Iowans know better than law-degreed judges (and Mr. Braley) that homosexual “marriage” isn’t natural and that judicial decisions aren’t always right just because they are made by people with law degrees.

The result of this un-natural decision? Half a million impressionable Iowa children are being taught by the judges that unnatural “marriage” is now OK, because it’s legally equal to natural (God-designed) marriage.

Jesus warned that it’s better to have a large millstone tied around our necks and be thrown into the sea than to cause children to sin. Those who believe they can defy the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” would be wise to heed Jesus’ caution.

Michael Gronstal, majority leader of the Iowa Senate:

Five years ago, then-House Speaker Pat Murphy and I proudly issued a statement that celebrated the Varnum decision as another step in Iowa’s groundbreaking efforts to guarantee equal rights for all our citizens.

We declared: “The court has ruled today that when two Iowans promise to share their lives together, state law will respect that commitment, regardless of whether the couple is gay or straight.”

We concluded with this: “Today, we congratulate the thousands of Iowans who now can express their love for each other and have it recognized by our laws.”

Because of Iowa’s long-standing leadership in the area of civil rights, we shouldn’t have been surprised by the Varnum decision. Iowa’s record of protecting the rights of African-Americans, women and others goes back as far as the 1830s.

In one respect, however, I missed the mark when initially reacting to the Iowa Supreme Court decision five years ago. Immediately after the decision, I predicted that in 10 years, Iowans would wonder what all the fuss was about.

I was wrong.

It actually took less than five years for most Iowans to embrace marriage equality. That says a lot about the common sense and common decency of Iowans.

Jamie Johnson, a member of the Iowa Republican State Central Committee:

High court opinions do not necessarily reflect public sentiment regarding the issues adjudicated, but they occasionally provide a window to the soul of “We the People,” who then must wrestle with those opinions.

Such is the case in Iowa since the state Supreme Court issued its Varnum v. Brien decision in 2009, judicially permitting same-sex marriage.

If the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made the issue of abortion the best predictor of where an American voter stood as to his party affiliation, Varnum has revealed the ideology of Iowa voters within each party.

Indeed, in five brief years since Varnum, marriage has gone from being a nonpolitical issue to becoming the leading indicator of an Iowan’s spiritual, cultural and political ideals, rendering irrelevant the question of party preference and revealing instead one’s views on the more transcendent issues of God, man, law, justice, liberty, accountability, and ultimate authority.

To borrow a phrase from the Bible, where one stands on the marriage issue effectively “pierces to the division of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

Indeed, it is a window to the soul.

To view this piece on the Des Moines Register website, please click here.

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