Special Report

What’s the Matter With Iowa?

Where the effort to create a test case for gay marriage just might pay off.

By 3.11.08

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It wasn't until Atlantic reporter Joshua Green called former state representative Danny Carroll that Carroll started to understand what hit him. He had been Speaker Pro Tempore of the Iowa State House, which was controlled by Republicans right up to the 2006 midterm elections. Then he went down to unexpected defeat, contributing to his party's loss of both houses of the state legislature.

Carroll's district is home to Grinnell College, so he had assumed that high turnout among the liberal student body, as well as low turnout for Republicans generally, had caused his defeat. It wasn't until Green called him to ask about the gay rights activism of Quark founder Tim Gill that Carroll realized his defeat had been part of a coordinated plan.

Gill had quietly spearheaded an effort to fund challenges to 70 anti-gay marriage state politicians in the 2006 election cycle. Fifty of them went down to defeat. Green convinced Carroll to look at the source of some of the larger donations to his Democratic opponent Eric Palmer, and was rewarded with good soundbyte: "Denver...Dallas...Los Angeles...Malibu...there's New York again...San Francisco! I can't -- I just cannot believe this!"

Carroll confirmed to TAS that his surprise was genuine. About the money's origin, he said, "I had no clue." And he isn't willing to take it lying down. "I will be running for re-election in November," he said. The official announcement is scheduled for tomorrow.

One of the reasons for Carroll's loss was that Iowa voters believed the gay marriage issue was long settled, which decreased the urgency of social conservatives to get out the vote. In 1998, the legislature added a law to the Iowa code that stated simply, "Only a marriage between a male and a female is valid."

Then, in late August of last year, Judge Robert Hanson, a district court judge for Polk County, stepped in. Citing the landmark anti-sodomy laws Supreme Court ruling Lawrence v. Texas, Hanson determined that the state's argument linking marriage to procreation is "specious at best," and that "the total exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage...is completely arbitrary."

The decision has since been appealed, but not before one couple, Sean Fritz and Tim McQuillan, was legally married at the Polk County courthouse.

"WE DIDN'T ask for this," huffed Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center of the gay marriage debacle. "It was forced on us."

In many ways, Iowa is the perfect test case for a gay marriage suit. The state lacks an initiative process, so there was no risk that irate voters would unilaterally ban gay marriage in the next election cycle. To even give voters that choice, constitutional amendments must pass both houses of the legislature in two consecutive terms, and the Democrats aren't interested in putting it to a vote.

Iowa also has no residency requirement for marriage. So, unlike Massachusetts, the fall-out of gay marriage won't be quarantined to the state.

If the appeal flounders, a gay couple from Virginia could travel to Iowa, legally marry after a three-day wait, return home, and sue the Old Dominion to recognize their union. The conflict between state laws would precipitate a constitutional battle that ends up in the Supreme Court, where all bets are off.

Given the high court's recent decisions on gay issues, it's not far fetched to say that gay marriage could then be legalized nationally without the consent of a single voter.

The push for Democratic challengers and the court challenge were financed by out-of-state groups and donors who clearly wanted a clean test case for gay marriage. And yet, Christopher Rants, minority leader of the Republican Party in the state house, complained, "If you mention where the money is coming from, then they call you a hatemonger."

Chuck Hurley can attest to that. After publicly decrying the impact of "out-of-state homosexual activists" on Iowa's gay marriage debate, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal alleged, "Mr. Hurley's real motivation has always been hate-mongering and raising money from hard-working Iowans to cover his salary."

Rants fears that if the Iowa Supreme Court upholds Judge Hanson's ruling, the already-flagging support for a constitutional amendment will evaporate. "People get nervous when you talk about amending the Constitution -- especially when it means reversing the courts," he said.

A source familiar with the Iowa legislative process said that Thursday, March 6 was one of two "funnel days" for the 100-day 2008 legislative calendar. Since the amendment didn't move forward on that day, chances are it won't. Rants pointed out that Democratic state representative Kurt Swain "co-sponsored the marriage amendment bill and can't even bring it to a full vote."

The Des Moines Register reports that 122 of 150 lawmakers in Iowa support the traditional definition of marriage. But that's a far cry from supporting a constitutional amendment to that effect, which the Democratic leadership has declined to do. House Speaker Pat Murphy recently told the Sioux City Journal flatly, "We are not going to take up this bill."

Would the legislature at least pass a residency requirement? No, said Rants: "We have no reason to think [the Democratic majority] will meet us half-way in that regard."

He added, "Without a residency restriction, a gay marriage law would make Iowa 'the gay Las Vegas.'"

Except that what happens in Iowa won't stay in Iowa.

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