(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," May 27, 2009)
Tuesday's 6-1 ruling by the California Supreme Court means that same-sex couples in that state can have all the benefits of marriage but can't claim the term itself. Although the California court ruled 4-3 last year that same-sex couples had a right to marry, it ruled Tuesday that Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment voters passed in November, "carves out a narrow and limited exception to these state constitutional rights, reserving the official designation of the term 'marriage' for the union of opposite-sex couples as a matter of state constitutional law."
The ruling was not unexpected -- the case was based on the process by which Proposition 8 came before the voters and not on the question of same-sex marriage itself. But the decision further highlights the importance of the Iowa Supreme Court's unanimous decision last month to overturn Iowa's decade-old "defense of marriage" act.
While a majority of states have changed their constitutions to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman -- and while many have allowed for "civil unions" -- the April 3 Iowa Supreme Court ruling holds that any law or practice that discriminates against homosexuals as a class is now held suspect. That means calling same-sex marriage by any other name -- even "civil union" -- isn't possible under the Iowa Constitution as currently written.
As Rep. Steve King wrote in a guest column for the Des Moines Register on Tuesday, "Abiding by the amendment process of the Iowa Constitution may, at first, seem to hamstring believers in marriage (as traditionally and statutorily defined) and the rule of law. But using the rule of law to reverse the Iowa Supreme Court's decision by amending the Constitution is the only way to uphold it and confer legitimacy on the process."
While King views the Iowa Supreme Court decision as an example of illegitimate "judicial activism, we view the recent California decision -- and Proposition 8 itself -- as a frightening example of how civil rights, once recognized, can be still be taken away from U.S. citizens. While King writes about the Iowa Supreme Court "creating a 'right' to 'same-sex marriage,'" we're concerned that a basic civil right, once recognized, can be removed by any group -- even by the will of the majority population. (Some good news in the Tuesday ruling is that California will continue to use the word "marriage" to describe the legal commitments made by nearly 18,000 same-sex couples between the court's initial ruling last May and Nov. 4, when 52 percent of California voters passed Proposition 8.)
Of course, the California ruling may indirectly help add some more tourist dollars to Iowa coffers. We think local organizations like Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau are right to begin marketing our state and area to same sex couples throughout the nation. During the recent White House correspondents' dinner, for example, even President Obama joked about what "partners all across America are saying to one another right now: 'Let's go to Iowa and make it official.'"
But we'll be even happier when Iowa begins to lose some of its market share as a site for same-sex weddings and more and more state courts, legislatures and voters begin to recognize same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue.