Keeping the ‘Faith In Iowa’

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Witosky, Hansen book offers clear view of marriage equality struggles and influence

Civil rights vanguards aren’t immediately appreciated and are rarely comfortable. Iowans know this from experiences dating to the early 1800s, well before statehood.

The first ruling of the Iowa Territory Supreme Court in 1838 said a slave could not be forced to return to a slave state after residing on our soil.

At a time when women were considered legal property by most Americans, married and unmarried Iowa women legally owned property. And, a century before interracial marriages were nationally recognized, they were taking place in Iowa.

The list goes on. From a ban on segregated schools 90 years before a similar national decision to a 1953 legislative refusal to take up a McCarthy-era demand for public employee loyalty oaths, Iowans — and specifically our courts — have long favored individual rights.

Still, reading about the plights of Iowans Abdallah Ingram and Edna Griffin is one thing. Living through the upheaval of significant civil rights advances is another.

We still feel the occasional ripple from our Supreme Court’s landmark 2009 Varnum decision, the waves becoming less turbulent with time.

The book “Equal Before the Law” was authored by former Des Moines Register reporters Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen. It is part of the Iowa and Midwest Experience series, and was published by the University of Iowa Press in June 2015. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
The book “Equal Before the Law” was authored by former Des Moines Register reporters Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen. It is part of the Iowa and Midwest Experience series, and was published by the University of Iowa Press in June 2015. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

Currently, most Iowans give little thought to the once-raging marriage debate. People meet. People fall in love. People get married and raise families. Trepidation about a fabled gay agenda has given way to consternation over the local water board’s minutes.

But as we sit on the eve of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that may hold the fate of marriage, it’s important to examine the path to here as well as our scars, even those still tender.

That type of retrospective is what former Des Moines Register reporters Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen offer in their new book, “Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality.” The two were in Cedar Rapids Tuesday to discuss the book with local residents and lead plaintiffs Kate and Trish Varnum.

Regardless of how SCOTUS falls, Iowa’s role in changing national views toward same-sex marriage isn’t diminished, the authors assured me before a scheduled reading at Christ Episcopal Church.

“Iowa wasn’t the first state to legalize,” said Witosky, “but it was the first in the Heartland to do so.”

Massachusetts, Connecticut and California had all legalized same-sex marriage before the Varnum decision in Iowa, although California’s law was halted from November 2008 to June 2013 by court proceedings.

Iowa’s decision came down on April 3, 2009.

“It isn’t only that the country suddenly had this Midwestern state with marriage equality — although having people and a state most of the country viewed as very ordinary doing so was an eye-opener,” Witosky said.

“When you read the court decisions that followed and listen to the arguments made, echoes of the Iowa decision are everywhere.”

As detailed in the book, Iowa was the first such case to risk asserting that children being raised by same-sex couples were injured by existing marriage laws. But when the original judgment in Varnum was handed down in Polk County District Court, the following words were printed among the 119 findings of fact: “Iowa’s interest in the welfare of children of lesbian and gay parents is as great as its interest in the welfare of any other children.” In many cases since, children have joined as plaintiffs.

Through any lens of legal scrutiny applied, District Court Judge Robert Hanson ruled, Iowa’s prohibition of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Nearly two years later, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously decided the same.

While Iowans with established political leanings had been primed to respond to the High Court’s ruling and state lawmakers had included marriage among hot-button social issues for years, most of the battles fought in advance of the decision were behind closed doors in the statehouse, on invitation-only email lists or in private strategy sessions. The general public was not prepared for and, in my opinion, could not have imagined the manufactured culture wars that followed.

National organizations monetarily and physically fortified state organizations on either side of the debate. But the influx of hundreds of thousands of dollars to already organized religious fundamentalist groups was by far the most shocking and disappointing. Because targeting the law itself was a lengthy and difficult process, those opposing marriage equality focused on the messengers, the justices. Their aim, however foolish, was true. All three justices who stood for retention in 2010, including the state’s first female chief justice, were ousted.

Money, statewide bus tours, guest speakers and, of course, advertising were the hallmarks of the anti-retention campaign. When the circus first came to town, it offered a form of entertainment unknown to even first-in-the-nation Iowans. That is, in the three decades previous, all of Iowa’s judicial campaigns had a combined spending of $0.

As was case in past retention votes, the justices did not campaign, and by the time local leaders or newly formed organizations began to advocate, misinformation was rampant. For instance, some who voted for ousting the justices incorrectly celebrated the end of same-sex marriage in Iowa that election night.

The man who was three-times rejected by Iowa voters finally ran a successful campaign — and it only took buckets of out-of-state money, unengaged opponents and a few lies to pull it off.

“Equal Before the Law” author Tom Witosky (left) reads a passage from the book for a group gathered in the lower level of Christ Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. Author Marc Hansen (seated) performed a reading later in the program. Both men signed copies of the book, which details Iowa’s larger influence in the national marriage equality debate, and visited with readers following the meeting. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
“Equal Before the Law” author Tom Witosky (left) reads a passage from the book for a group gathered in the lower level of Christ Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. Author Marc Hansen (seated) performed a reading later in the program. Both men signed copies of the book, which details Iowa’s larger influence in the national marriage equality debate, and visited with readers following the meeting. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

Media and other out-of-state observers wrote the headlines based on what they thought they saw: religious people lashing out against a law that violated their faith. The truth is more nuanced and includes an impromptu, celebratory church service in a historic church in downtown Cedar Rapids on the night of the Varnum decision, speeches from courthouse steps by supportive religious leaders, as well as my first view of the sturdy and majestic sanctuary at Christ Episcopal Church on Valentine’s Day, 2011.

The 2011 gathering — just like the book author appearance this week — was organized by church members Charles Crawley and Libby Slappey. It was the first meeting of a new organization, Faith In Iowa, which was formed to protect and advocate on behalf of Iowa’s historically independent judiciary. Although open to people of all faiths and non-faith, it offered a much needed and mostly unique fellowship opportunity for Christians supportive of same-sex marriage.

But to claim the group existed only due to same-sex marriage or only to respond to the judicial retention vote would be a mistake. Faith In Iowa organized so ideas and ideology could hold equal footing, to make sure money — especially the hundreds of thousands flowing into Iowa from anti-gay groups outside the state — wasn’t permitted to co-opt the voice of all Iowans of faith.

It was people from diverse faith backgrounds coming together under a single roof to in essence proclaim, “Not in my name, not in my state.”

Members took to social media and to the streets, positioning themselves in the media’s narrow beam and demanding equal time. “Not all people of faith feel that way … believe that way … behave that way,” members echoed.

It was largely due to Faith In Iowa and the similar groups that formed throughout the state that a fourth justice standing for retention was returned to the bench. The painful lesson of allowing a single, misguided viewpoint to own a conversation had been learned. The diverse voices of the faith community were joined by local attorneys, civil rights leaders and historians from all walks of life. Their messages resonated in the way only truth can.

Marriage is not only alive and well in Iowa, but stronger because no one is excluded from its benefits and protections. Iowa’s children are less vulnerable because our government no longer draws distinctions between those with opposite-sex and same-sex parents. Our judicial branch is now a proud advocate of its own progressive history. And, of course, our faith communities are more vibrant because they’ve embraced their own strength.

Although those who believe in equal protection under the law hope otherwise, the upcoming national decision may result in new challenges. But Iowans have already walked through this particular fire and have emerged, a little burned on the edges, but more focused on individual rights than we’ve ever been.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on June 24, 2015.