Thursday, April 09, 2009

Reading between the lines of the gay marriage victories

Two groundbreaking decisions in favor of gay marriage in two weeks - and several in the works across the country have got to be a good thing.

The Iowa decision, of course, is important because it has finally infiltrated the debate to the so-called "hinterland," and might also provide an impetus for other states in the region. In fact, a lot of thought seems to have gone into picking Iowa as the state that would effectively press this case, and it seems to have paid off, at least for now.

Vermont is significant because it is the first legislature to pass the law, as opposed to court rulings that are less democratic.

Hopefully these decisions will open up debate in other states; Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project reasons that when married gay couples from such states move to other parts of the country, they would take up the fight there. New York, for instance, is already reviewing cases to allow recognition of out-of-state gay marriages.

More significantly, DC’s city council voted in favor of recognizing marriages from other states. This would lead the debate directly to the Congress since it has the final word on DC’s legislation.

The Iowa decision may also help in California where a ruling on Prop 8 is expected in the coming weeks.

However, as always in such issues, there is a valid concern that these decisions may lead to a backlash. Since the recent results themselves are considered by many to be repercussions of the California Prop 8 ruling, this is indeed a real worry.

In fact, some gay activists have suggested that part of the reason for Prop 8 was moving too hard and too fast to strike down the marriage ban. As this Time article elegantly explains, the California ruling last year was quite categorical in declaring that any discrimination against gays was presumptively unconstitutional, and hence subject to “strict scrutiny” - a condition so far reserved to discrimination based on race and religion. Iowa took a softer stance, deciding instead that the gay marriage ban did not hold up to a lower level of constitutional analysis – “intermediate scrutiny” (usually accorded to gender discrimination cases) - and hence qualified for strict scrutiny, thus ultimately fulfilling the same objective.

The important question is, as more and more states begin to allow same-sex marriages, will it continue to be a significant political issue? Top Republican leaders like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have already decried these decisions, but as Chris Cillizza points out, GOP strategists seem to vary on what the political implications could be.

It’s hard to imagine that Republicans can ruffle enough feathers again with this issue in order to win elections - one, because there are more important things to worry about, two, because more and more Americans are beginning to accept the idea of gay marriage, and three, it remains a dicey issue to run a presidential campaign on because reconciling positions between a candidate’s base in the primaries and then packaging it for general election voters is extremely hard for both parties.

However, the matter is complicated by the fact that Iowans have started lobbying legislators for an amendment to the ruling, which, if placed, would be ripe and ready for the 2012 election season. Since Iowa law requires amendments to get approval in two legislative sessions followed by ballot voting, the process takes two years. And, considering the hawkeye state’s strategic importance in the presidential elections, this decision might throw the next race in the country directly into the moral-values, social-issues quagmire.

That might be a good thing in sort of a convoluted way because candidates will finally be forced to take a real stand – no more getting away with half-baked, civil-union, cat-on-the-wall positions.

Nate Silver at has an optimistic prediction, however, saying it may not get that far: based on a model measuring the religiosity of states, and hence their likeness to vote for or against it, he envisions that about half the states would have voted against the gay marriage ban within the next four years (though Iowa itself doesn’t seem to come around until 2013 in his model).

It’s tempting to believe it considering the general trend seems to be towards allowing for same-sex marriages, and seriously, it’s about time!

If nothing else, this economy argument should work...