Iowa GOP Hopes to Ban Gay Marriage and Civil Unions as Vander Plaats Mobilizes Pastors

The battle over marriage equality in Iowa is heating up as Republicans in the State House are moving forward with plans to ban gay marriage and civil unions, an attempt to reverse a unanimous 2009 State Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality. To amend the constitution, “an amendment would require approval by state lawmakers during two legislative sessions, and then approval by voters at the ballot box.” Encouraged by major Republican gains in the midterm elections and the removal of three pro-equality Justices through retention votes, Iowa Republicans have emphasized restrictions on gay-rights and reproductive-rights in their legislative agenda, and Religious Right leader Bob Vander Plaats is pressing for the removal of the entire Supreme Court.

Vander Plaats’s new organization, The Family Leader, recently blasted pro-equality faith leaders in an alert message that questions their faith, stating: “167 ‘religious’ leaders signed a letter delivered to the Iowa Legislature saying that people of faith support homosexual ‘marriage.’ Don’t stay silent while others speak for you and misrepresnt [sic] God.” The group calls on pastors to sign an alternative petition which describes “homosexual behavior” as “immoral and sinful” and “harmful both to the individuals who choose to participate in it and the society that chooses to accept it.”

The mobilization of pastors by The Family Leader comes at a time when, according to the Des Moines Register, Republican leaders are trying to prohibit not only gay marriage but also other forms of legal rights for gay couples such as civil unions and domestic partnerships. The Register reports:

House Republicans will introduce legislation this week to begin the process to amend the Iowa Constitution to ban not only same-sex marriage but also civil unions and domestic partnerships.

That prospect raised alarm with civil rights advocates, who said it would legalize discrimination.

Republicans, who took control of the House in the Nov. 2 elections, had pledged to pass a measure this legislative session that would eventually allow Iowans a vote on same-sex marriage. But the resolution they’ve prepared is more sweeping than that, a move intended to help place finality on the issue of the legality of same-sex unions, said Rep. Dwayne Alons, R-Hull, who is the lead sponsor of House Joint Resolution 6.

“I think the biggest issue is that if that (a same-sex marriage ban) is carried forward, and then Iowa does civil unions and recognizes that as a substitute status, then, from what I’ve seen in other states,” people would come to consider same-sex civil unions as equal to marriage, Alons said.

As of late Wednesday, no Democrats had signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. Fifty-six of the 60 House Republicans are listed as co-sponsors. The measure is expected to easily pass the House, but Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal has vowed to block consideration of a same-sex marriage amendment in that chamber.

The resolution says: “Marriage between one man and one woman shall be the only legal union valid or recognized in this state.”

Des Moines attorney James Benzoni said such an amendment would run counter to the intent of Iowa laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“The problem you’re going to have is that it allows prejudice,” Benzoni said. “It’s going to open the door now for discrimination, for bullying, for treating people as second-class citizens.”

The wording raised questions about whether private companies and governments in Iowa could still extend benefits to domestic partners. State government, for example, provides domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples.

Those who agree with the Iowa Supreme Court ruling have noted that same-sex couples have in previous years been shut out from hospital visitation and inheritance rights. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has listed more than 1,100 benefits the government provides to married couples.

The Rev. Keith Ratliff Sr. of Des Moines, president of the NAACP State Conference for Iowa and Nebraska, has helped lead protests against same-sex marriage. He said Wednesday he agrees with the attempt to also keep domestic partnership or civil unions from gaining legal status.

Ratliff said he believes same-sex marriage further erodes the family, similar to the way that two-income families have eroded traditional nuclear families.

“I think there is an immediate consequence to gay marriage because people let their guard down in relation to what the word of God says,” Ratliff said.