LGBT Rights Round-up, 2009: Iowa

(Originally posted by me in the GW Discourse blog,

I’d like to take an in-depth look at what the LGBT community has seen this year, what promises have been fulfilled, what’s gone wrong, and what’s to come in the future. Today I’ll begin with Iowa, but keep your eyes on our blog and look out for more posts on what we’ve seen regarding LGBT rights in 2009. Future posts to come on New York and New Jersey, and other LGBT issues such as hate crimes and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

It’s not completely shocking when socially liberal strongholds like Massachusetts and Vermont legalize same-sex marriage. But in April of 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court surprised America by allowing gays and lesbians in the American Heartland the right to marry.

The question is, how did the LGBT community win the unanimous support of a court with several self-proclaimed conservatives and Republicans, especially on this issue? Lambda Legal argued on behalf of same-sex marriage in Varnum v. Brien (the case which granted marriage in Iowa). Their legal team spent nine years prepping for this case, and chose their plaintiffs carefully. They defended six same-sex couples, three of whom had children, and all of whom were in lengthy, committed relationships. Couples with children can make all the difference in cases like this. It’s much easier to show that same-sex marriage does not destroy families and children, but actually supports them, when the plaintiffs have families. They also mollified conservative fears by including a religious accommodations clause, which stated that religious institutions are not legally required to perform or recognize Iowa’s same-sex marriages.

And although we think of Iowa as a typical midwestern state, it historically has never behaved quite like the rest of the heartland. Iowa was one of the first states to allow women’s suffrage and interracial marriage. Interracial marriage cases are often referenced in same-sex marriage cases, so perhaps it is not so surprising that this year’s biggest same-sex marriage victory took place in Iowa. It has a unique history of civil rights liberalism that should not be ignored.

Will this decision last? Some states, like California and Hawaii, passed same-sex marriage in the courts, but then rescinded it through ballot initiatives or the legislature. Luckily for the gay and lesbian community, this is unlikely to happen in Iowa. Citizens cannot initiate a change in the Iowa constitution. In order to remove same-sex marriage, the Iowa legislature would have to vote for it in two consecutive legislative sessions, and then it would be voted upon by the public. It looks as if Varnum v. Brien is here to stay.

What can we learn from Iowa? First of all, don’t underestimate the importance of the image couples you are representing. Bringing forward families instead of couples speaks volumes to the courts. Second, we need to take another look at social liberalism in this country and figure out where LGBT support really lies. Most of us would never have believed that Iowa would have same-sex marriage while California does not. (We’ll delve further into this issue when we take a look at Maine, NY, and NJ). Finally, although this case is under the Iowa Supreme Court, and therefore other state Supreme Courts are not required to follow this precedent, the Varnum court determined that laws prohibiting same-sex marriage failed at the intermediate scrutiny level. They found that the law was not substantially related to an important government interest, and therefore it violated the Iowa Constitution. Again, other courts are not forced to uphold this, but it will be interesting to see how this precedent affects other courts and challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act.

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