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Marriage equality advocates celebrate 1st anniversary, plan for 5th
IOWA CITY, Iowa — On Saturday, marriage equality will have been a part of the Iowa landscape for one year. Yet even while advocates continue to praise the decision handed down by the Iowa Supreme Court and celebrate the same-sex marriages that have taken place, they also understand that their battles against discrimination continue.
“When you look at Massachusetts, it was at least five years before [couples] there felt secure,” said Carolyn Jenison, executive director of One Iowa, following a press conference Tuesday. “We are continuing to work, and we have set a goal of celebrating our five-year anniversary in 2014. At that point we’ll feel more like we can relax a little bit.”
Although the court’s decision would have been met with some opposition no matter when it was issued, the ruling came at a time when the nation was divided on health care reform and when the state was torn between needs following the worst natural disasters in its history and overall economic decline. As a result there has been no shortage of general frustration during the past 12 months, and also no shortage of opponents to the court decision willing to capitalize on those feelings.
“There is a gentleman who is a pastor at one of the Baptist churches who said that same-sex marriage in Iowa was worse than the flooding of 2008,” said the Rev. Tom Capo of Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist in Cedar Rapids. “And, actually, when I was at the recorder’s office on the day that marriage licenses were first issued to gay and lesbian couples, there was a group of people that I believe were from his same church that wanted to try and stop what was happening.”
The scene in Cedar Rapids described by Capo was similar to what happened at other recorder’s offices throughout the state, when opponents of the decision brought petitions to county officials and demanded that licenses not be issued to same-sex couples. County recorders in all 99 of Iowa’s counties, however, upheld the law and issued licenses.
“[Those gathered at the courthouse] asked me questions,” said Capo, who believes he was the only clergy member in attendance that day. “They asked me what Bible I believed in, but I didn’t bother to answer them. They were pushing people around — and it was just unpleasant. The couples were there for a jubilant experience and these people just wanted to ruin it.”
The Rev. Abraham Funchess, who serves as senior pastor at Jubilee United Methodist Church in Waterloo, agreed that there has been, and will continue to be, religious differences of opinion on same-sex marriage.
“I think one of the reasons we have such turmoil about this issue of marriage equality is due to the indoctrination of religious principles being taught for so long that homosexuality is wrong,” he said. “I think that Biblical interpretation must be reevaluated, of course, as it relates to those churches. But, even so, we must recognize that this is different from religious interpretation, and different from religious tradition.”
Both Capo and Funchess have been working to educate people throughout Iowa and nationally that the decision relates only to civil law, and does not attempt to sway any specific religious belief.
“It is okay that some believe differently,” said Capo. “I don’t have any problem with that. But, when some try to impose their beliefs on somebody else, to try to control laws because of their faith position, it just doesn’t seem right to me.”
Funchess, who quoted from a statement released by Mildred (Jeter) Loving on the 40th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized her mixed-race marriage during his public remarks, said afterward that he believes “hasty ostracism” of a segment of the population to be “unloving.”
“I think it flies in the face of what the church really is supposed to be about, in terms of acting on behalf of justice and fighting against oppression where ever it may be,” he said.
“I still hear the great teacher of hospitality saying to us that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves — and that means that we we respect the dignity and rights of our neighbors.”
Johnson County Recorder Kim Painter, who was able to marry her spouse, Jessica, in September as a result of the decision, said she believed the situation to be “win-win” because of how well it was handled by the court.
“The whole state saw that government continued to function smoothly under the court’s ruling [when all 99 county recorders issued licenses to same-sex couples]. They also saw that the ruling upheld the right of a church to be a church and to spell out its beliefs and urge its membership to follow those teachings,” she said. “In that way, Varnum [v. Brien] was a pure win-win for religious conservatives, for religious progressives, for humanists and atheists. This ruling was a complete affirmation of the wisdom of constitutional government, civil laws, the separation of powers and the separation of church and state.”
Just six years ago, in February 2004, more than 50 gay and lesbian couples converged on Painter’s office in Johnson County to request marriage licenses. While Painter obviously sympathized with the couples, she turned each away, citing that Iowa law at the time did not allow for same-sex marriage. On the day that marriage licenses were legally issued last year, many of the same couples returned, finally victorious, to the same counter where they had been previously turned away.
According to Janelle Rettig, Johnson County Supervisor, those days were just two in a string of actions that paved the way for a press conference on the one year anniversary of marriage equality to be held in Iowa City, the city that was the first in the nation to include sexual orientation in its human rights code in 1977. One year earlier, and only steps away from the site of Tuesday’s press conference, Rettig and others awaited the Varnum decision from the Iowa Supreme Court — and then celebrated.
By the end of 2009 — eight months after marriage licenses were issued to same-sex couples — a total of 1,783 marriages had taken place, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. The Williams Institute estimated a $5.3 million annual boost in state government revenues due to same-sex marriage and $160 million in new spending on weddings and tourism in the first three years of marriage equality in Iowa.
“We will not take these freedoms for granted,” said Jenison, who also praised “fair-minded” elected officials who stood for equality. “We will fight back every attempt to undermine the rights of Iowans, and we will stand together — stronger, better and a more united Iowa where everyone has a seat at the table.”
Listen as Johnson County Recorder Kim Painter discusses one year of same-sex marriage in Iowa: