By Lynn Campbell
DES MOINES — Opponents of same-sex marriage stormed the Capitol on Tuesday, with a target on retiring Democratic senators who could tip the balance in a closely divided Senate and allow Iowans to vote on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
“Let us vote! Let us vote!” chanted the crowd of about 250 people, a sea of red T-shirts in the Capitol rotunda.
Outside, a handful of same-sex marriage supporters — a married lesbian couple, an openly gay state senator, a union leader and a Christian pastor — put a human face on the issue. They countered what they considered an attack on themselves, their friends and their neighbors.
Tammy Steinwandt, of Solon, gushed about how much it meant to marry Melanie Muth, her wife of three years, “to be able to love a person that I totally fell in love with, that is my soul mate, the light of my life, and who drives my every day.”
The debate over same-sex marriage has raged in Iowa for almost three years, since the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous April 2009 decision in Varnum v. Brien legalized such marriages here.
This election year, the conversation appears to have some urgency.
The redrawing of legislative districts based on population shifts in the 2010 U.S. Census gives Republicans new hope that they can regain control of the Iowa Senate this November and bring the issue to voters. Democrats have a narrow, 26-24, majority.
“We need to have an election … That’s what solves this better than any maneuvering on the floor of the Senate,” said state Sen. Merlin Bartz, R-Grafton, who will face state Sen. Mary Jo Wilhelm, D-Cresco, in the general election. “I would say, particularly since it’s a redistricting year, the power of incumbency isn’t as strong.”
State Sen. Thomas Courtney, D-Burlington, scoffed at assertions that three years of gay marriages in Iowa have hurt the state.
“It’s just hot air is all it really is. I’m not gay, but I don’t mind that two people that love each other get married. To me, it’s just a hate race,” Courtney said. “If it’s against God’s law, that will be straightened out some other time — not in the Iowa Legislature.”
Leading the effort by opponents is Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of The Family Leader, a nonprofit social conservative group. He mockingly compared same-sex marriage to other forms of illegal unions.
“Why stop at same-sex? Why not have polygamy? Why not have a dad marry his son, or marry his daughter?” Vander Plaats asked. “If we’re going to have marriage equality, let’s open this puppy up and let’s have marriage equality. Otherwise, let’s stick to the way God designed it, one man and one woman.”
Democratic senators shot back at Vander Plaats, who unsuccessfully ran for governor three times and is now the front man in the effort to ban gay marriage.
“The truth needs to be told: Bob Vander Plaats needs to get a real job instead of working on spreading a message of hate and discrimination,” said state Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who is openly gay. “It’s time for Bob Vander Plaats to hang it up. He’s been running for governor for what seems like the last 20 years.”
Only a constitutional amendment can make same-sex marriages illegal once again. State law requires such an amendment to pass two consecutive Iowa General Assemblies. If the proposed amendment is approved by lawmakers in 2013 and 2015, the issue could be taken to voters in the 2016 general election.
That won’t happen as long as Democrats control the Iowa Senate.
“I’m not going to put discrimination into the state constitution,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, repeated Tuesday.
Gronstal has said he is willing to pay the ultimate political price, even if it means losing re-election or the majority in the Iowa Senate, to prevent a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Adding fuel to the fire this year is a judicial retention election on the November ballot.
Iowans in 2010 voted to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were part of the unanimous decision legalizing same-sex marriage. This November, another justice who was part of that decision — Justice David Wiggins, of West Des Moines — will be up for retention.
“I don’t think that Justice Wiggins should be able to wiggle out of his vote,” Bartz said.
Minnesotans will vote in November on a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Thirty-one states have constitutional restrictions limiting marriage to one woman and one man.
“In 31 of 31 states, every single time the people have had a chance to vote, in liberal California, in liberal Maine, it didn’t matter, the people voted to protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a national nonprofit that advocates against gay marriage, said at the Iowa Statehouse rally.
Iowa is one of six states where same-sex marriage is legal, along with New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia. Washington state and Maryland also have approved same-sex marriage laws, but they are not yet in effect.
According to the latest data from the Iowa Department of Public Health, 3,377 same-sex couples reported being married in Iowa, during the first two years it was legalized. That's 8 percent of the 42,019 total marriages in the state in 2009 and 2010.
Weddings and tourism by same-sex couples gave Iowa a $12 million to $13 million economic boost, according to a December report by the Williams Institute, a national think tank at the UCLA School of Law that advances sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.
That translated into $850,000 to $930,000 in tax revenue for the state and local governments.