Gay marriage ruling has Iowans weighing their values

Calm deliberation marks the reaction, for the most part, to Friday’s landmark court decision.

By MARK GUARINO | Correspondent of The Christian The Science Monitor/April 6, 2009 edition

DAVENPORT, IOWA – In the two days since the highest court in her state ruled to allow same-sex marriages starting in late April, Sheila Engel of Davenport, Iowa, found herself rethinking an issue about which she had assumed she’d made up her mind.

“One part me says it’s against my Christian beliefs. Another part of me says they should have equal rights,” Ms. Engel said Sunday while paused in a grocery aisle of her local Wal-Mart. “There has to be a middle road here.”

Her rumination is being shared by many Iowans who are coming to terms with a controversial issue that, until last week, was safely confined to America’s distant coasts. With Friday’s ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court, the state became the third behind Connecticut and Massachusetts to permit gay marriages.

Legalization, however, means something different for Iowa than for its predecessors. The ruling is destined, for one thing, to reposition the heartland state as more progressive than it’s usually perceived, especially by people who have never been to Iowa and dismiss the entire region as “fly-over” territory.

There is also the economic capital: Because legal status is granted only to residents, some are predicting that same-sex couples from nearby Illinois, Wisconsin, or Missouri may relocate to Iowa. Nonresidents can still marry here, and some may opt to stage their weddings in Iowa because it is closer than traveling to the East Coast. As a result of Friday’s ruling, Iowa state government stands to see an estimated net gain of $5.3 million each year, according to a report issued last week from the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law that analyzes the link between sexual orientation and public policy.

Views on same-sex relationships

The share of Iowa adults who support gay marriage is relatively small – 26.2 percent, according to survey released Friday by the University of Iowa. But another 27.9 percent favor civil unions, suggesting that a majority of residents are not averse to some kind of official recognition of same-sex relationships.

In Davenport, a city of nearly 100,000 people positioned on the banks of the Mississippi River, a majority of Iowans interviewed Sunday said the real shock was that it arrived on their state’s doorstep at all.

“We’re not San Francisco. This is Iowa. This is the hotbed of ‘bread basket values.’ It strikes me as weird that the old-school farmers didn’t come out and say, ‘Knock it off,’ ” said Greg Meyers, taking a break from striking the pins at Bowlmor Lanes. The fact the ruling generated little controversy speaks more to where Iowans are in their “the level of tolerance” about the issue, he said. “My dad hates it, but he doesn’t hate it enough to do anything about it.”

Most Iowans interviewed said they view gay marriage largely as a civil rights issue, making it easier to separate from personal convictions.

“It’s not my cup of tea, but what people do is their business. The only thing I think is great about it is, it gives a right back to people. It’s not a free country anymore,” said Karm Paysen of nearby Calamus, who says there’s too much interference with people’s lifestyles in the form of regulations such as public smoking bans and mandatory seat-belt use.

Less resistance among younger Iowans

When first asked, 20-something Jason Bak said he didn’t think gay marriage was “natural.” But when considering what the ruling meant for his state, he said it would neither harm nor foul. “I was raised Catholic and I have religious beliefs. But I also have my own beliefs,” he said. “People should be happy.”

His convictions are in line with the University of Iowa poll showing that 58.7 percent of Iowans under age 30 support gay marriage in their state, and three-fourths believe in some kind of formal recognition of same-sex partnerships.

On Sunday, one place that conversation happened was after church. Michaela Groh, a lay youth leader at Community of Joy, a United Methodist congregation in Bettendorf, said teenagers ages 14 to 18 had “a very mixed reaction” to the ruling.

“They want people to be happy but asked is it in God’s will or not,” she said. Standing outside Davenport’s Vander Veer Conservatory, she and fellow youth leader Nichole Nicholas, also in her 20s, said legalizing gay marriage in Iowa is evidence that, among their generation at least, a cultural taboo is slowly in decline.

“The way I see it, when it comes to political issues, Iowa is a swing state. So if we’re one of the first couple of states to pass it, it’s going to become mainstream,” she said.

Opponents consider constitutional amendment

There are Iowans, however, who remain incensed. Outside the Wal-Mart, an older man who would give his name only as Craig said the ruling will force healthcare prices to increase if it meant gays and lesbians would be relocating to his state. “They’re OK to stay on the East Coast,” he said.

State lawmakers opposed to the ruling are already prepping constituents to ready petitions to seek a constitutional amendment overturning the ruling in 2012.

Pastor John Beller said he would support those efforts with his congregants at Quint City Baptist Church. He worries that state legislation might one day force him to perform marriages that would otherwise be against the tenants of his church.

“One mantra of the gay and lesbian movement is they want freedom of choice. But they want freedom of choice for what their ideas are. Down the line, that freedom might infringe [on] what others believe,” he said.

For the moment, however, passions on both sides remain calm.

Loading groceries into their car, Kim Bahrenfuss said she and her husband Kevin were “pleasantly surprised” with the ruling. “I think there’s more problems in the country than trying to deny people their civil rights,” Mr. Bahrenfuss said.

But as wedding bells start ringing around his state for gay couples, he acknowledged that one thing is certain: “The battle is not over.”

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