Monday, April 6, 2009

What is the Future of Gay Marriage in Iowa?

As you have probably heard by now, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously Friday that marriage must be open to gay and lesbian individuals. Because gay marriage is now legal in a “heartland” state - and not just liberal coast states - this is an historic ruling that will most certainly uplift liberals and terrify conservatives.

But one need look no further than California to know that a State Supreme Court ruling can quickly be overturned by the people - the infamous Proposition 8 killed California’s short lived legality of gay marriage.

Will the same thing happen in Iowa?

An amendment to the Iowa Constitution will be necessary to overturn the Court’s decision. The process to do so will take at least three years - so gay marriage will still be legal in Iowa until at least 2012. It requires approval of consecutive General Assemblies of the State Legislature (the next of which will not begin until 2010) and a statewide referendum.

Theoretically, neither should be too difficult to achieve. A poll taken by the University of Iowa in November found the majority of Iowans (62%) opposed gay marriage.

Yet almost half of those who opposed gay marriage did approve of civil unions - a popular stance among Iowa’s Democratic politicians.

There are two ways such a referendum would move forward. The first is an amendment that would ban gay marriage but set up a way to ensure civil unions. It would be the moderate position that would gain majority support in the State Legislature and many opposed to both gay marriage and civil unions may support it out of pragmatism. But there will be plenty of conservative voters who will not be able to bring themselves to vote for any recognition of gay unions, and a majority might not be reached.

The other way is an amendment that bans both gay marriage and civil unions - an amendment that principled conservatives could support and that most moderates would prefer to the status quo. This would be an amendment less likely to pass through the State Legislature, but more likely to pass by referendum.

Either way, it is not hard to imagine the battle lines already being drawn for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Iowa, with the war chests and political forces already gathering together for a face-off in the years to come. And with three years before a possible referendum to finally ban gay marriage in this Midwest heartland state, both camps will have plenty of time to wage a strong campaign to shift public opinion far enough to their side.

It is a fight that the nation will look to with the utmost interest - with greater attention paid to it than Proposition 8 in California or similar efforts in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, or Vermont. As a moderate state that represents rural, traditionalist America, Iowa may very well become the defining example of progress in the history of the Gay Rights Movement.

As they say in Presidential contests, "as Iowa goes, so goes the nation".

UPDATE: A recent post by Nate Silver at finds that Iowa could potentially defeat a gay marriage ban by 2012.

Using a model he developed, he finds that each year a proposed ban will lose 2% of it's support. By 2012 one could expect such a ban in Iowa to pass with only 50.4% - basically a toss-up. He also includes a timeline of when we can expect each state to vote down theoretical gay marriage bans.

These findings seem to be consistent with the general notion that younger voters support gay marriage by wider margins. As older voters die and younger people reach the voting age it becomes harder and harder to pass such a referendum. This is, of course, in addition to the broader change in attitude among Americans - many of whom are finding themselves supportive of gay marriage when they use to oppose the idea.

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