The coming battle over amending the Iowa constitution

There's nothing opponents of marriage equality can do to stop gay and lesbian couples from getting married in Iowa starting on April 24. Over at Daily Kos, Wee Mama posted information about getting a marriage license in Iowa for those who live elsewhere. If you would like to have a religious ceremony, I recommend contacting The Interfaith Alliance of Iowa for help in finding a sympathetic officiant, most likely to be from a United Church of Christ, United Methodist or Unitarian Universalist congregation. Couples wanting a Jewish wedding should contact Rabbi David Kaufman of Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, if at least one partner is Jewish and the couple is open to raising children as Jews. Rabbi Kaufman has officiated at a same-sex commitment ceremony and published this blog post on Friday demolishing the arguments against legalizing gay marriage in Iowa.

The political battle over marriage equality will go on for a long time after wedding bells start ringing.

After the jump I will bring you up to date on the political reaction to Friday's Iowa Supreme Court decision, prospects for amending Iowa's constitution, and the latest statewide opinion poll on this subject.

UPDATE: Scroll to the bottom of the post for a very strong statement released on April 6 by Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal.

At Bleeding Heartland I published longer posts on reaction to the Varnum v Brien decision from Iowa Democrats and Iowa Republicans, so I'll just hit the highlights here.

I was very happy to read the joint statement from Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy. I liked it so much, I am re-posting the whole thing:

"Thanks to today's decision, Iowa continues to be a leader in guaranteeing all of our citizens' equal rights.

"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.

"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, the Iowa Supreme Court has reaffirmed those Iowa values by ruling that gay and lesbian Iowans have all the same rights and responsibilities of citizenship as any other Iowan.

"Iowa has always been a leader in the area of civil rights.

"In 1839, the Iowa Supreme Court rejected slavery in a decision that found that a slave named Ralph became free when he stepped on Iowa soil, 26 years before the end of the Civil War decided the issue.

"In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated "separate but equal" schools had no place in Iowa, 85 years before the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same decision.

"In 1873, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against racial discrimination in public accommodations, 91 years before the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same decision.

"In 1869, Iowa became the first state in the union to admit women to the practice of law.

"In the case of recognizing loving relationships between two adults, the Iowa Supreme Court is once again taking a leadership position on civil rights.  

"Today, we congratulate the thousands of Iowans who now can express their love for each other and have it recognized by our laws."

I'm not the biggest fan of our legislative leadership in Iowa, but Murphy and Gronstal hit it out of the park on this one. Their statement sends a very strong message to the public as well as to wavering Democratic legislators. Statehouse Democrats met behind closed doors Monday to discuss this issue, and at least a few Democrats support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, but I doubt Murphy and Gronstal would have issued such a strong statement on Friday if they had any intention of letting a Proposition 8-style bill get to the floor of the Iowa House or Senate. Gronstal confirmed today that the Iowa Senate will not debate this issue this year, and I believe leadership will block any attempt to pass a constitutional amendment restricting marriage equality during the 2010 session.

Governor Chet Culver tends to avoid speaking out on controversial topics, and he dodged on Friday with a statement acknowledging strong feelings on both sides of this "complicated and emotional issue." He said he would review the court decision with his legal counsel and with the attorney general of Iowa. I would have liked to see more supportive comments from Culver, but he is in an awkward spot. After saying in September 2007 that "it's important we let the judicial process work itself out here," the governor unwisely promised in January 2008 to "do whatever it takes to protect marriage between a man and a woman" if the Iowa Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Republican politicians and bloggers in Iowa are already demanding that the governor keep his promise.

I am not worried that Culver will actively fight the Iowa Supreme Court ruling, though. Not when a large segment of the Democratic base and Democratic legislative leaders support marriage equality. In addition, Culver promised on Friday to consult with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller before reacting to this ruling, and Miller (also a Democrat) issued a strong statement later the same day that began as follows:

The Court has issued a clear and well-reasoned opinion. I believe that the Supreme Court's decision is right, based on Iowa Constitutional law principles regarding equal protection. It is noteworthy that the decision was unanimous.

As I wrote on Friday, two separately elected Iowa legislatures would have to approve a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage before the measure would go to Iowa voters. If Gronstal and Murphy are able to block such an effort in 2010, Republicans would have to win back the legislature in 2010, pass the amendment in 2011 or 2012, hold the legislature in 2012, and pass the amendment in 2013 or 2014. By then I believe support for marriage equality will be widespread in Iowa.

However, I forgot about something MyDD user political22 pointed out over the weekend. Every ten years, Iowans vote on whether to call a Constitutional Convention, and the next scheduled vote on this matter is in 2010. Iowa Secretary of State Mike Mauro discussed this scenario today with Radio Iowa:

Under the traditional method of amending the state's constitution, 2012 is the earliest an amendment banning gay marriage could be placed on the ballot. But Secretary of State Michael Mauro says in 2010, Iowans can vote to convene a constitutional convention to consider amendments to the document.

"If it were to happen, it opens up many possibilities to make all kinds of amendments," Mauro says. "It's wide open."

If a constitutional convention comes up with an amendment or amendments to place before Iowa voters, a special election could be scheduled in 2011 according to Mauro. Mauro, the state's top election official, says a constitutional convention could not rewrite the entire state constitution and would be restricted to proposing amendments -- but there's no limit on the number of amendments which could be proposed.

I forgot about this option because Iowans have never come close to approving a Constitutional Convention any of the previous times they've voted on the measure (in 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000). I contacted Mauro today for further information, and here is the process as he described it to me.

The question about calling a Constitutional Convention will automatically be on the general election ballot in November 2010. A simple majority vote in favor is all that's needed to approve the measure. If it passes, the legislature would have to come up with a process for selecting delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and the statute provides very little guidance on how this would be done. The governor plays no role in these decisions; it would be up to the Iowa legislature to approve rules on selecting constitutional delegates.

The Constitutional Convention would meet sometime during 2011, after which the legislature would have to set an election date for the public to vote on any amendments that come out of the convention. Most likely, the special election would be held in late 2011 or early 2012. The amendments would not be voted on as a package. Each amendment would appear separately on the special election ballot. They could deal with almost any issue, from reducing the number of Iowa counties (the constitution currently stipulates that we have 99 counties) to consolidating school districts to giving counties zoning authority over large hog lots to various worker protections favored by labor unions.

Iowa Republicans would be taking a huge risk by going all-out to approve a Constitutional Convention in 2010. They may feel the public is with them on gay marriage; a poll that was in the field last week showed that just 26 percent of Iowans support gay marriage, with another 28 percent supporting civil unions. Perhaps a campaign on amending the constitution would be a helpful backdrop for Republican candidates for governor and state legislature. On the other hand, focusing on the ballot initiative would keep divisive social issues front and center, and Republican candidates running on social issues didn't fare well in the 2006 or 2008 Iowa legislative races. Also, that recent poll showed a huge generation gap, with nearly 60 percent of Iowans under age 30 supporting gay marriage, and three-quarters of Iowans under 30 supporting either gay marriage or civil unions. Republicans need to weigh whether a short-term benefit in 2010 is worth the long-term damage to the GOP's image among younger voters who have been trending Democratic.

A Constitutional Convention would bring other risks for Republicans too, because it could consider a lot more than gay marriage. It will be an uphill battle for Republicans to regain control of the legislature in 2010. Democrats currently have a 56-44 majority in the Iowa House and a 32-18 majority in the Iowa Senate.

If voters approve a Constitutional Convention while keeping Democrats in charge of the legislature, Democrats would be able to draft the rules for selecting delegates to that convention. Who becomes a delegate will inevitably influence the kind of amendments the assembly would consider.

Certain interest groups may not be pleased by a campaign to approve a Constitutional Convention. Kay Henderson did some scenario spinning at Radio Iowa today and suggested that road-builders might be afraid of losing the constitutional provision that earmarks all gas tax revenues for the Iowa's Road Use Tax Fund. I wouldn't be surprised if agribusiness fought the idea of a constitutional convention too, because there's a lot of support in both parties for "local control" over large hog confinements.

I assume someone will soon poll Iowans on whether they would vote to call a Constitutional Convention to overturn gay marriage. I'm particularly interested to know whether Iowans who say they are for civil unions, but not gay marriage, feel strongly enough about that to support amending the Iowa Constitution.

Setting aside the constitutional discussion for a moment, many political observers are wondering how the Iowa Supreme Court ruling will affect the 2010 races. This will be a hammer for Republicans to use against Democrats in marginal state legislative districts, even if some of those Democrats themselves oppose gay marriage. I am not too worried, because no Democratic incumbents lost in 2008 after they voted to add sexual orientation to Iowa's civil rights law. The overall economy and deteriorating budget projections are much bigger threats to Democratic incumbents in 2010, in my opinion.

As I mentioned above, Governor Culver doesn't have a lot of good options now. He has no choice but to backtrack on his foolish promise to "do what it takes" to "protect" heterosexual marriage from gay unions. Pushing for a constitutional amendment would produce a strongly negative response from much of the Democratic base. On the other hand, there are also Democrats and independents who oppose gay marriage and will want to see the governor do something. I hope he will use the unanimity of the court ruling and the legal advice he receives from the attorney general as excuses to revise his previous opinion on marriage equality. Republicans will try to hurt Culver on this issue in 2010, but the passionate opponents of gay marriage were never going to vote for Culver anyway.

Paradoxically, Culver could benefit from this controversy if it helps a social conservative win the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year. I believe the governor will win or lose based on economic issues, and he would have a tougher campaign against State Auditor David Vaudt or even Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey than against a hard-core "values Republican" such as Bob Vander Plaats.

The best scenario for Democrats would be for Congressman Steve "10 worst" King to run against Culver. I don't know anyone from either party who thinks King could win a statewide election. King told the Omaha World-Herald on Friday that he is more likely to run for governor in 2010 if Culver does not "step up" to try to overturn the Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

By the way, David Waldman (formerly known as Kagro X) used King's reaction to the Varnum v Brien ruling to mock King's lack of understanding of the whole "checks and balances" concept. We Iowans learned long ago never to expect logic or coherence from Steve King.

Ultimately, it's far too early to guess the impact of gay marriage on the 2010 elections. There's no consensus among Bleeding Heartland commenters about how much this hurts Democrats. While some Republicans are hoping the issue will save their party, others are angry about what they view as a weak response by Republican leaders on this issue. I am confident that public opinion will shift toward supporting marriage equality when people see the sky didn't fall because some couples who were already living together made it official. Then again, Nate Silver thinks it will be 2013 before a majority of Iowans are ready to vote to support gay marriage.

For now, my advice to fellow Iowa Democrats is "Don't worry, be happy" about the Varnum v Brien decision. Even if I'm wrong about the potency of gay marriage as an electoral weapon for Republicans, some things are worth losing elections over.

UPDATE: I just received a press release from the Iowa Senate Democrats. The sentence in bold print was bold in the original.

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal rejects amendment to reverse marriage equality

DES MOINES: Monday night, April 6, was the first time the Iowa Senate discussed the unanimous decision by the Iowa Supreme Court to allow same sex couples to marry. During the discussion, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs made clear he would not agree to suspend the rules to allow a vote on an amendment to reverse the court decision.

Without the support of Senate Majority Leader Gronstal, efforts to amend the Iowa Constitution can not move forward in the Senate.

Below is the text of Senator Gronstal’s response to Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley of Chariton . It is also available on YouTube at:

“One of my daughters was in the workplace one day, and her particular workplace at that moment in time, there were a whole bunch of conservative, older men. And those guys were talking about gay marriage. They were talking about discussions going on across the country.

“And my daughter Kate, after listening for about 20 minutes, said to them: ‘You guys don’t understand. You’ve already lost. My generation doesn’t care.’

“I think I learned something from my daughter that day, when she said that. And I’ve talked with other people about it and that’s what I see, Senator McKinley. I see a bunch of people that merely want to profess their love for each other, and want state law to recognize that.

“Is that so wrong? I don’t think that’s so wrong. As a matter of fact, last Friday night, I hugged my wife. You know I’ve been married for 37 years. I hugged my wife. I felt like our love was just a little more meaningful last Friday night because thousands of other Iowa citizens could hug each other and have the state recognize their love for each other.

“No, Senator McKinley, I will not co-sponsor a leadership bill with you.”

Tags: 2010 elections, Chet Culver, Gay Marriage, IA-Gov, Iowa, Iowa Constitution, Iowa Supreme Court, Marriage Equality, Mike Gronstal, Pat Murphy, same-sex marriage, State Legislature, Steve King, Varnum v Brien (all tags)



To Rabbi David Kaufman

Mazel Tov!  Sir, your logic is impeccable.

by antiHyde 2009-04-06 04:16PM | 0 recs

I had not heard about the 2010 constitutional convention issue. Ugh, there HAD to be a loophole, why couldn't that once-a-decade vote have happened in 2008!

But as you said it would be a big risk for the GOP to push for this if they aren't sure of picking up at least one chamber of the legislature. They could be stuck in a pretty bad position if Democrats control the legislature.

by LeftistAddiction 2009-04-06 04:32PM | 0 recs
first denomination to perform G & L weddings

Don't forget MCC, the first denomination to perform weddings for same-sex couples (and obviously the most queer-friendly Christian denomination in the world).  

There are a couple MCCs in Iowa: .  

by chiefscribe 2009-04-06 05:45PM | 0 recs
thank you for pointing that out

There are clergy from other denominations who will also officiate at same-sex ceremonies too.

by desmoinesdem 2009-04-06 07:15PM | 0 recs
Re: thank you for pointing that out

I believe it was 1990 when the Reform Jewish movement decided to start doing same-sex weddings.

by Sandwich Repairman 2009-04-06 11:14PM | 0 recs
Re: first denomination to perf

United Church of Christ is also one to look at... The largest denomination to support gay marriage.  Very gay friendly and have supported gay marriage as part of official church policy as voted by 80% of representatives at the General Synod in 2005.

by 30000Fine 2009-04-06 09:13PM | 0 recs
OT: VT governor just vetoed marriage equality

VT's legislature expected to take up a veto override discussion tomorrow morning.  

by chiefscribe 2009-04-06 05:58PM | 0 recs
Re: OT: VT governor just vetoed marriage equality

by sepulvedaj3 2009-04-06 07:19PM | 0 recs
3 cheers to


by sepulvedaj3 2009-04-06 07:02PM | 0 recs
I'm only giving him two cheers

until he starts doing better on environmental issues.

But he is showing real leadership on this one.

by desmoinesdem 2009-04-06 07:13PM | 0 recs
3 cheers

on gay marriage issue for Gronstal!

by sepulvedaj3 2009-04-06 07:20PM | 0 recs
I'll go with that

especially since he comes from western Iowa, which tends to be the most conservative part of the state.

by desmoinesdem 2009-04-06 07:31PM | 0 recs
Thank you!

For this wonderfully comprehensive, informed, simply read and understood explanation of the ground situation in Iowa.

And as for "some things are worth losing elections over"--AMEN!!!  Has the DLC gotten that memo yet?

by Sandwich Repairman 2009-04-06 11:12PM | 0 recs
Re: The coming battle over amending the Iowa const

Good luck Iowa!!!!!!!

I think the fervor will fade as time goes by, though 2010 is a bit close for comfort. We've had same sex marriage in Massachusetts for a few years now. When people looked around they saw that it was right, and didn't have a damn thing to do with their own marriages, it just sorta faded away.

Even Republican legislators (the handful we have left) voted against putting the question on the ballot (we have the same process as Iowa). The bigots have given up here; they will eventually there as well.

People have more important things to worry about than this. People are figuring out that if the f'in Rethugs had put as much effort into managing the economy as they do on these issues we wouldn't be in their mess.

If Vermont overturns Governor Bigot's veto that will lend even more  momentum behind the marriage equality effort. Harder for the bigots to slap the "undemocratic/against the will of the people" tag on that. (How duly elected legislators are more democratic than duly elected/appointed judges is beyond me, but that's conservatism for you.)

Someday we'll get California back on track, too. And the rest of you.

In the meantime, any Unitarian Universalist minister will gladly marry you. If Iowa is a bit too far for you, "come to Boston for the Spring time". Red Sox Opening Day is today (it's a holiday) and we've got plenty of Unitarian ministers. Plenty of beaches for the ceremony, too.

Go Iowa!!!!!

by meddembob 2009-04-07 05:44AM | 0 recs
I thought you had to live in Massachusetts

to get married there. Did I misunderstand the residency requirement?

by desmoinesdem 2009-04-07 06:25AM | 0 recs
i think if your

state recognizes out of state marriages thats ok too?

by sepulvedaj3 2009-04-07 07:25AM | 0 recs
Re: I thought you had to live in Massachusetts

For the first few years, that was true, due to Romney's insistence on applying a fairly ancient and arcane law.  That law was repealed about a year ago (possibly a little longer).

by Dreorg 2009-04-07 07:52AM | 0 recs


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