As Iowa Passes Anti-Marriage Bill, Supporters Have Hard Time Justifying Stripping Rights From Gays

This afternoon, in a vote of 62 to 37, the Iowa House passed House Joint Resolution 6, effectively overturning the state’s 2009 unanimous Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex marriages. The bill also eliminates civil unions or any form of relationship recognition for same-sex couples in the state. It now heads to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D) has vowed to “fight attempts to pass the amendment.”

Throughout today’s emotionally-charged debate, the bill’s Republican supporters attempted to portray the resolution — which would strip civil rights from gay and lesbian people — as a Democratic initiative that would give a voice to the people of Iowa. But when opponents prodded Republicans to explain if denying gay people the right to marry undermined the Iowa Constitution, they demurred. In one exchange, Rep. Nate Willems (D) pressed Rep. Erik Helland (R) on the specifics of the court’s decision. Helland was unable to explain if the resolution complimented the equal protection clause and admitted that he has not read the Court’s decision:

WILLEMS: Have you read the Varnum decision?

HELLAND: You know, I have not read it word for word, I’m familiar with the gist of it […]

WILLEMS: Does it sound familiar that the Iowa Supreme Court found that the current law violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution?

HELLAND: Again Rep. Willems, you have the opinion in front of you, I do not…

WILLEMS: Well, Rep. Helland, let me read for you word for word Article 1 Section 6 of the Iowa Constitution, which is Iowa’s equal protection clause. It says, “all laws of a general nature should have a uniform operation. The General Assembly should not grant any citizen or a class of citizens privileges or immunities which upon the same terms should not equally belong to all citizens.” So, representatives do you agree with that piece of the Constitution? […]

HELLAND: Do I agree with that section of the Constitution? […] Yes I do. […] I agree with that theme, theory, idea, constitution, that basic premise of democracy.

WILLEMS: Rep. Helland, I guess my question is how do we reconcile the equal protection clause with House Resolution 6?

HELLAND: I think that rises to a question that is frankly difficult for this question to address because the question then becomes, what is a protected class, how do we define that protected class…[…]

WILLEMS: Is it fair to say that House Resolution 6 carves out an exception to the equal protection clause?

HELLAND: The bottom line is, I don’t agree with you. I don’t think this is an exception we are carving out…


During another portion of the debate, Rep. Mary Mascher (D) had Reps. Kraig Paulsen (R) and Dwayne Alons (R) agree that the Constitution protected minority rights, and then pressed them to explain why they only approved of some rights, like freedom of religion, but denied others. “I asked you, which provisions in our Iowa Constitution, do you protect for the minority in our state? Freedom of speech, freedom of religion? Are you picking and choosing? I want to know!,” she insisted, before saying, “You’re picking and choosing certain rights for minorities”:

MARSCHER: It’s interesting that we are picking winners and losers here. So you have the right if you’re a minority to practice your religion…but you don’t if you wan to get married. […] So there is a precedent in terms of protecting the rights of the minority. Because Rep. Alons, I would be the first to defend your right to practice your decision. If somebody came at you and said, ‘I think we should put Rep. Alons’ religion on the ballot. Let’s put a constitutional amendment to deny him his right to practice that religion.’ I would be the first to vote against that. Because that’s not right….we believe in equal protection, even if I don’t agree with your religion, I will defend your right to practice it.

Listen to the full exchange HERE.

ThinkProgress interns Paul Breer and Kevin Donohoe contributed research to this post.