Letter from the Editor

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Iowa legislature and gay marriage

Let's make sure we are arguing about the right thing. One case being made is to protect "sanctity" of marriage between men and women in Iowa. The argument goes that if we start letting gay couples officially marry, people will soon be getting engaged to goats, Buicks, houseplants, inflatable people, the entire syncronized swimming team from the University of Nebraska, and who knows what.

That one's a little hard to follow.

Marriage is an emotional issue, and those who speak out do so from the heart. But if marriage is relying on politicians to "protect" it, boy is it in trouble.

The institution seems pretty tough. Even with gay people having equal licensing rights in Iowa for, what, four hours last summer, marriage seems to have survived.

Most every day, people bring in photos of shiny, happy Storm Lake couples announcing the nuptials for the newspaper - good old one-of-each-gender pairings with no signs of all society having unraveled back to the stone age. These couples look sanctified enough, though you have to wonder about those portrait photographers who always twist engage-ees into some kind of bizarre and unnatural wrestling holds in those photos. I must admit though, executing the flying half nelson while still managing to show off the diamond is not a bad skill for a young bride to master.

We've been told that allowing gay marriage would encourage Iowans to be gay. Also, recognizing short people will encourage you to become a midget, so watch out for that.

Frankly, it is hard to fathom how the sanctity of marriage has survived even before Iowa noticed gay people. After all, all those perfectly hetero Hollywood weddings, ala Britney Spears, have worked out so role-model well. In fact, the sanctity is such an attraction that some folks are choosing to engage in the practice half a dozen different times. Candidate Giuliani and his latest spouse are working on their sixth rodeo between them. Then there are the marital murder cases that so engage TV news audiences - several hundred a year, though we only fixate on a few.

And still, marriage endures, with all of its bluster and tradition, mostly as it has for centuries, no matter what people do to it. And it is still beautiful that two people wish to make such an enduring commitment. That will outlast this current debate, too.

It is likely that a majority of Iowans are not comfortable with the concept of gay marriage, and they don't need to be - it's a free country.

(Um, it is a free country, right? Well, I'll have to check on that and get back to you. In this administration, it's day-to-day.)

The Iowa Legislature couldn't push through a constitutional amendment on marriage even when Republicans had control of both houses, it's hard to believe they could do it the required two times with more-liberal Democrats at the reins.

While conservatives gnash teeth over the threat of gay marriage, the action of one judge (rouge or brave - I'll leave the adjective to you) is probably the best thing that could happen for them - it has mobilized the conservative population to organize, even demonstrate, in a way they haven't in years. The debate has even caused the Democrat governor to have to speak out against gay marriage, which could erode some of his future support from more liberal factions of his own party. Republicans stand to benefit.

Still, if we are representing this most emotional issue as one of gay rights, both sides are missing the point.

Gay couples in Iowa have long pointed out that they in many cases do consider themselves already married. And, if they want a minister or civil official to say the words for them, they can probably find one willing. The law, the legislature, the courts, public opinion - none of it can prevent a same-sex couple from making a commitment.

What we fuss about, then, is whether the state should officially validate same-sex marriage with a piece of paper. And does that piece of paper make a couple any more real or committed to one another?

What it does is give a same-sex couple the tax exemption that married hetero couples get. A big break in insurance costs. Possibly more leverage in adoption cases or access to certain forms of public assistance intended for families and households.

If Iowa offered a type of civil union that permitted legal marriage, but did not yet define that form of marriage to include the financial benefits, would same-sex couples be satisfied? And if not, wouldn't this really about the money, not love?

Bottom line, our state legislature has three basic jobs - balancing the budget, fixing roads and keeping them safe, and funding public education. Budget, roads, schools - any year in which they can make progress on those three fronts in Des Moines is a good year.

"Show up, balance the budget, and go home," according to one of our local lawmakers, is what Gov. Culver directed in one message to legislators, and he has a point.

Whenever the legislature gets tangled up in social debates, as it historically tends to do, it distracts our elected officials from getting their core job done. If they really want to fight about who should be able to get married, they should go ahead and do it - but in a special session after their basic responsibility is achieved (and foregoing their per diem cash in the process, because the taxpayer shouldn't be footing the bill for that kind of thing).

Bottom line, the Iowa Legislature has no real business in the bedroom. Neither, for that matter, do the courts. It is not the place of either branch of government to redefine marriage.

Maybe marriage could use some help, but not the political kind.

Marriage should be a religious action, not a governmental one. It gets a little scary when we forget that.