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As California goes on gay marriage, will Iowa?

April 3, 2009 |  3:26 pm

Perhaps, but it'll be a much tougher battle for gay marriage foes in the Hawkeye State to amend their constitution in the name of enshrining "tradition." First, the news: Where justices of California's Supreme Court were split last May, Iowa's were unanimous:

Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady, who wrote the unanimous decision, at one point invoked the court’s first-ever decision, in 1839, which struck down slavery laws 17 years before the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of a slave owner to treat a person as property.

Iowa’s gay marriage ban “is unconstitutional, because the county has been unable to identify a constitutionally adequate justification for excluding plaintiffs from the institution of civil marriage,” Cady wrote in the 69-page opinion that seemed to dismiss the concept of civil unions as an option for gay couples.

“A new distinction based on sexual orientation would be equally suspect and difficult to square with the fundamental principles of equal protection embodied in our constitution,” Cady wrote.

The ruling, however, also addressed what it called the “religious undercurrent propelling the same-sex marriage debate,” and said judges must remain outside the fray.

Some Iowa religions are strongly opposed to same-sex marriages, the justices noted, while some support the notion.

“Our constitution does not permit any branch of government to resolve these types of religious debates and entrusts to courts the task of ensuring that government avoids them,” the opinion says.

I appreciate the religious angle of Cady's opinion: The morality of gay marriage is essentially a debate among religious groups, and the Iowa government and courts are barred by law from settling such disputes.

What happens now? Like gay Californians did between May and November 2008, will same-sex couples in Iowa have to rush to the altar (or, more likely, the courthouse) to tie the knot with a traditional-marriage revolt looming at the voting booth? Hardly. According to the Des Moines Register article linked above, Iowa requires more than the momentary populist backlash needed in California to put a law beyond judicial review by passing a constitutional amendment. Changing the Iowa constitution requires that a proposed amendment be approved in two consecutive state legislative sessions before going to the voters. At the earliest, voters could overrule the Iowa high court's decision in 2012. California's same-sex couples had a six-month window to get marriage; Iowa's will have several times' that.

So we finally get a true gay-marriage laboratory in America -- and in a state that voted for George W. Bush in 2004, the year in which the former president called for a so-called marriage-protection amendment to the U.S. Constitution. If a gay-marriage ban does go up for a vote in Iowa, it'll be interesting to see whether heartland voters who've actually lived with same-sex unions for a while are more comfortable with marriage equality than we left-coasters were last November.

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