"The general assembly shall not grant to any citizen or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens."
That's the statement in Iowa's Bill of Rights that weighed on the Iowa Supreme Court five years ago when the justices took up the issue of same-sex marriage. In order for the state of Iowa to extend the right to marry to one group while denying it to another, the court would have had to have found that treating one group of citizens differently was "substantially related to an important governmental objective."
The state argued that those objectives were tradition, encouraging procreation and creating a proper environment for raising children.
But when the seven legal minds elevated to Iowa's highest court looked at those justifications, they all came to the same conclusion:
- Tradition is no reason to keep a law on the books. Slavery was once a tradition. So was allowing only white men to vote.
- Procreation doesn't hold up as an argument. The state allows people to marry whether or not they intend to have children. No one even asks the question.
- Even if the court believed a same-sex relationship wasn't the proper environment for raising children, saying no to same-sex marriage wouldn't change anything. Same-sex couples were already allowed to raise children.
So, all seven justices agreed: Iowa's ban on same-sex marriage was in violation of the Iowa Constitution.
Thus, in 2009, Iowa became the first state in the nation to reverse such a ban, paving the way for legal same-sex marriage. The decision was both heralded with praise and excoriated as activism from the bench.
A year later, after a fierce campaign by opponents of the decision (a campaign heavily bankrolled by out-of-state money) voters ousted the three Supreme Court justices up for retention.
But just two years later, the next time a justice faced a retention vote, the campaign to target justices who made the decision had lost steam; Justice David Wiggins retained his seat with 54 percent of the vote.
What was a ground-breaking decision just five years ago doesn't seem quite so extraordinary today. Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage by court rulings, by statute or by popular votes.
Four states — Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Wisconsin — recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships. The U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling invalidating California's Proposition 8, a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Change has spread in Europe as well, where Spain upheld its gay marriage law and France legalized gay marriage last year.
As each new barrier is broken, the clamor from the opposition gets a little bit quieter. People have begun to realize that allowing same-sex marriage doesn't have the negative impact on heterosexual marriage that opponents feared.
Since the ruling in Iowa five years ago, there has been no decline in heterosexual marriage, nor has such a decline been seen in any state where the law changed. Marriage rates are about the same whether a state allows gay marriage or not.
Iowa's ruling five years ago was the right thing to do — not because it was time to support gay marriage — but because our state constitution says we won't treat one group differently than another.
As the justices wrote, "To decide otherwise would be an abdication of our constitutional duty."
Copyright Dubuque Telegraph-Herald. Reprinted with permission.