Monday, December 8, 2008

The Strategic Value Of Civil Unions In Iowa

Barely a month after Proposition 8's narrow passage in California ended marriage equality in that state, the front in the nationwide struggle for gay rights has shifted to Iowa.

On Tuesday, the Iowa Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a legal challenge to the state's legislative prohibition on same-sex marriage. And when the justices ultimately make their decision, the eyes of the nation will be focused here. This will provide Iowans an historic opportunity to show our fellow Americans the true nature of our state.

Because the Supreme Court's judgment will be exclusively the result of the legal opinions of a majority of its members, attempting to predict how it will resolve the case is little more than a dressed-up guessing game. Thus, rather than speculating whether Iowa will soon join Massachusetts and Connecticut in affording gays and lesbians the same basic rights that most heterosexuals take for granted, we will suggest the course of action we believe the court should take.

As we have made abundantly clear in the past, we believe strongly that achieving true equality under the law for gays and lesbians throughout the United States is one of the defining civil-rights issues of our time. Ideally, every jurisdiction in the country would mandate full marriage equality tomorrow. But this is not an ideal world. So, purely as a matter of pragmatism, we must temper our fierce idealism with our clear-headed knowledge of empirical political reality.

Though we harbor no doubts whatsoever whether gays and lesbians are entitled to every legal right possessed by heterosexuals or that a core purpose the American judicial system is to protect all such minorities and their rights from the tyranny of the majority, it is nonetheless crucial for us to take the opinions of Iowa's citizenry into account. To be clear, the recognition of fundamental human rights ought never be subject to majority veto. But, as Proposition 8's passage in California so rudely reminded us, existing political and legal frameworks often allow for exactly that sort of disturbing outcome.

So what do Iowans think about marriage equality? The results of a recent poll conducted through the UI give us a pretty good idea.

First, the bad news: Only 28 percent of registered Iowa voters currently favor the legalization of gay marriage.

However, there's also some very good news: An additional 30 percent of registered voters in the state favor civil unions that would provide gays and lesbians with all of the legal benefits of marriage so long as the word "marriage" is reserved for heterosexuals. With only 32 percent of Iowans who are registered to vote opposing both gay marriage and civil unions, it's clear that a strong majority of Iowans are open to granting legal recognition to gay and lesbian couples.

To a certain extent this 30 percent disparity is frustrating. There simply aren't any good arguments in favor of such a "separate but equal" system. Some people harbor the misconception that state recognition of gay marriages would alter religious institutions' rights to decide based on their own criteria which couples they choose to provide with religious marriage ceremonies. This no doubt plays some role in persuading more than half of Iowans who support civil unions to oppose referring in state documents to such unions as marriages, but the primary explanation for the disparity is probably much simpler. Merely as a result of a sort of intuitive conservatism, many older Iowans seem to be uncomfortable using the word "marriage" to refer to a union that wouldn't have traditionally warranted that label. It's not bigotry so much as force of habit.

Rather than risking the sort of backlash that followed the California Supreme Court's decision to grant full marriage equality, the Iowa Supreme Court should be sensitive to the sensibilities of those Iowans who for whatever reason remain hung up on a single, simple word. Regardless of the details of its ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court should require the state government to grant gay and lesbian couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. But it should hold off on insisting that such unions be labeled marriages. Doing so would substantially isolate and weaken the social conservatives who will no doubt attempt to use any ruling that advances gay rights as a means of raising money and turning out voters at the polls.

Iowa's Constitution is much more difficult to amend than California's, requiring both legislative and popular approval over a period of several years. But even if there are significant barriers to marriage-equality opponents being able to override a court ruling allowing gay marriage in the state, we must not be overconfident that they will be unable to overcome those barriers. The damage such an outcome would cause far outweighs the value of one single, simple word.

(Cross-posted at the DI's main site.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The DI will be offering the state Supreme Court advice on how to rule in next Monday's paper. Exactly what our editorial will advocate might surprise you--so stay tuned."

Christopher Patton can sometimes settle for something less than exactly-what-he-wants-no-exceptions -- SURPRISE!