Iowa and Vermont: The Politics of It

Some week. The Vermont legislature voted to let same-sex couples marry, and the Iowa Supreme Court decided that it is unconstitutional not to let same-sex couples marry. Together, these two events are a much needed shot in the arm for marriage.

Iowans celebrate Supreme Court marriage decision.
(Photo: Alan Light, Creative Commons)

Iowa is the first win in a flat state without an ocean view. And the decision was unanimous. Vermont is the first time a state legislature (as opposed to a court) has opened marriage, and it did it by a stunning veto override.

Iowa and Vermont don’t erase the damage from losing Proposition 8 in California. They don’t have either the cultural or economic influence that the Golden State has. Still, there’s nothing like winning big to put the wind back in your sails.

Where the marriage movement heads now, though, is complicated. Iowa and Vermont will not be the start of same-sex marriage all over the country because that simply isn’t possible.

Winning marriage in four states has been politically expensive; in getting it, we also got amendments to state constitutions that block marriage in 29 states. There are just two ways to get marriage now in those 29 states. First, you could go to the voters to get the amendments repealed. That’s a very costly process, and one not likely to work in many of the states with amendments (like Alabama and Mississippi).

You could instead go to the federal courts, and ask them to rule that the state constitutional amendments violate the federal constitution. But that’s not a very good bet. A few years ago, the ACLU and Lambda Legal sued to set aside the most egregious amendment, Nebraska’s (it bans every form of relationship recognition for same-sex couples, and none for heterosexuals). We lost, in a moderate federal appeals court.

Moreover, any federal case in which we win will surely wind up in the Supreme Court. Winning there is a long shot anytime soon. Losing could prevent us from winning state cases and might even hurt us in cases about parenting, schools and jobs. (I explained this in greater detail in Don’t Just Sue the Bastards ).

That means that the landscape for change right now is 21 states, not 50. Four of those of course already have marriage. Six more are states, like Pennsylvania and Indiana, which don’t even have civil rights laws banning sexual orientation discrimination. They’re unlikely to move to marriage anytime soon. In a couple—like Wyoming and North Carolina—any progress on marriage seems a long way off. So the immediate playing field is more like 11 states.

Some of those 11 states are ready for marriage, or could be soon. We should have several additional marriage states, some by the end of this year, some over the next few years. At some point though, if we are going to get marriage in America, we’re going to need to do something about those state constitutional amendments. There are three things we can do.

First, in a couple of states like California and Oregon, we probably can get the voters to repeal constitutional amendments in a few years. But we have to be careful, particularly in California. A second loss there would be very damaging to the movement, both in terms of the resources it would consume and the extent to which it would discourage our community and our allies. We should go back to the ballot when we can win.

Second, in some of the other amendment states we can lay the groundwork for future repeal by getting either civil unions or domestic partnerships now. But in most of the amendment states, even that isn’t possible. Of the 29 constitutional amendments, 19 also ban anything similar to marriage; some ban any recognition. Outright repeal isn’t likely in this third group of states in the near term. In some, we could probably get partial repeal, allowing civil unions. But doing a repeal that doesn’t allow marriage may be deeply unsatisfactory to many in our own community.

It would be nice if there were an easy way to get rid of these amendments, or if we could get marriage despite them. But there isn’t. Our work is going to have to include some repeals, some fights for domestic partnership and civil union instead of marriage, and likely some fights for partial repeal.

Another Iowan celebrates the decision.
(Photo: Alan Light, Creative Commons)

Iowa and Vermont make this prospect a little less daunting than it was just a few days ago. Most Americans believe that marriage for same-sex couples will come some day, and deep in their hearts, know that it really is a simple matter of fairness and equal treatment. Because both Vermont and Iowa are so politically eloquent—such strong wins—they give us the opportunity to tap into those feelings.

In the states that are ready for marriage, we should take the opportunity these two wins have given us to press ahead and press hard. In the other states, this is the moment to lay the groundwork.

The hardest thing about laying that groundwork is the truth about the best way to do it. The best way to change people’s minds is to talk to them about gay people. The best way is to talk not about abstract issues, but about the ordinary lives of gay people, and the way being gay makes life more challenging. (Click here for “Tell 3 ,” a website that explains why individual conversations are our best chance to make change, and how to go about having them.)

That’s frustrating because it isn’t easy to have conversations like that. But the Iowa and Vermont give us all a pretty fabulous conversational hook. And if the bad news is that no outside force is going to do this for us quickly, the good news is that to a great extent, we have the power to make it happen ourselves.

(Cross-posted to Get Busy, Get Equal and Daily Kos.)

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Wendy Hunter

Being Canadian, where gay marriage is legal, I am happy to see that at least some parts of the US are progressive. The right to marry is a human right - end of story. I truly hope the rest of country follows suit.

David Drissel

I am very proud to be an Iowan after the recent unanimous State Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. The bottom line in this debate is the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which in Thomas Jefferson's words mandates "a wall of separation between church and state." Though one's faith can indeed be a reason for opposing (or supporting) same sex marriage in a particular church, it is not an acceptable reason for opposing (or supporting) changes in marriage law. In this regard, there is a separation of religious marriage and civil marriage. The former is optional and mostly symbolic, while the later is required if a couple wishes to receive the hundreds of legal rights and responsibilities attached to marriage licenses. To deprive citizens of equal protection of the law, simply because of their gender or sexual orientation, is discriminatory and unconstitutional - according to the Iowa Supreme Court. I think it is only a matter of time before the U.S. Supreme Court reaches a similar conclusion.

Mona Shaw

Iowa is not flat. No one who's from Iowa would describe it as flat. Iowa is rolling plains, not flat. At all. Thanks.

Mona Shaw
a 4th-generation Iowan who's thrilled with the Supreme Court decision.


Religion is the single greatest impediment to the recognition of the inherent citizenship of America's gay and lesbian citizens.

The argument of dueling bible verses between our supporters and detractors should be between them alone. Both sides need to get out of our lives and let the civil legislative and judicial process take its own course as it has done in Iowa and Vermont.

The travesty of the recent California election with the passage of Prop-Hate should never happen again anywhere else.


I agree with marriage only between a
man and a woman, this should be enough
to let you know were i stand on this

Pam Meadows

I don't get it. Why are we pussy-footing around the real issues? We know, based on the history of all other civil rights in the US obtained by the non-white/non-male/non-land owning citizens (voting, freedom - as in abolishing slavery, interracial marriage, employment based on race, etc.) that approaching the issues state by state, ASKING "please sir, may I have some rights" to the very people who don't view us as human does not work!

Pleading with them, asking their permission - which is what letting it go to "popular" vote is - just confirms their belief that we are not equal and that they get to decide if they feel like being the nice masser that day. By asking for their permission we are telling ourselves that we really do not count, that there is something wrong with us. Internal homophobia is the real monster in that closet. Buying into the fallacy that we have to ask permission, state by state or via any other voting method, only plays into their hands.

Skip the state by state. Skip the elections. Address the real heart of the matter in the only way it has ever worked in the US - where is our Civil Rights Act of 2009? Only let’s do it right this time and have it be a blanket Civil Rights Act. That ALL rights given to any citizen apply to ALL citizens. That no right granted to one may be denied to another. Ever. Period.

(By the way, the reality is, unfortunately, that "talking nice" has not worked for any other group in US history either. It wasn't the speeches that got women’s or blacks voting rights. The speeches definitely started the process. What forced the issue into the minds of the citizens, and therefore into the minds of legislators, was blatant civil disobedience. For the women - the fire pot vigils which at times meant arrests, abuse. For the blacks - the protests that sometimes turned into riots, some ending in arrests, abuse, deaths. It wasn't Mr. Lincoln being concerned that slavery wasn't right that started the civil war nor was The Emancipation Proclamation his original intent. Slavery only figured into the war as a means of financially crippling the South and as a means of gaining the Abolitionist’s support for the war. Our current society does like to sanitize all "unpleasantness" but it doesn't make go away or make it any less real. It only serves to give a cotton fluff illusion of a past that never existed and encourages the sheep to be silent and ineffective.)


I DO NOT like where this is going! There are still plenty of churches that teach that homosexual behavior is a sin. The ACLU will deny this now, but I see the time coming when the government will be able to order churches to teach that the sin of homosexuality is ok or lose their tax-exempt status, all with the ACLU behind the feds being able to do this.


I believe that the Iowa decision, so precisely and carefully worded, provides the best foundation for future efforts.

And, I feel very strongly, that the focus should change to "civil marriage" instead of civil union or domestic partnership. I think it reveals the true nature of the controversy and the objections. It reinforces the constitutional separation of church and state, and does not take away anything from the religious who can still limit their marriage rules in any way they choose.

After all, isn't it the state that grants the license and a state approved representative that signs the certificate? Members of the clergy are eligible to become agents of the state for that purpose, but others can and should qualify. (For instance, in Florida that can be a Notary Public if the couple chooses ... and inter-religious couples make that choice every day.)

Perhaps it would be a worthy endeavor to go after other states to just "recognize" the marriages performed legally in those states that have already "converted." I believe it would be a better first step than "civil unions or domestic partnerships."

All citizens should have the option of a civil marriage and/or a religious marriage.


Finaly values such as justice and equality are being respected rather than the phony values of bigotry and ignorance.

allen bass

A gay-marriage concept,
What laws would that cause us to develop & what new stigmatisms would gays have to experience. Hmmm? Isn't being GAY problem enough?

Big question,
Is these going going to a general public thing; or is it going to like
nudist/naturist closed-society?

The point is, what next?
Hmmm? What is on the horizon,
the next controversy?

GAY marriage are only the tip of the iceberg....spooky....

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