Iowa GOP lawmakers say focus not on gay marriage

DES MOINES – Since Iowa’s legislative session started a month ago, conservative lawmakers have filed bills on school funding, taxes and abortion, but so far they haven’t taken up gay marriage legislation.

Some supporters of gay marriage said that could signal more support of same-sex marriage, but Iowa lawmakers argued it’s more about priorities.

After repeatedly pushing for legislative action to put a constitutional amendment before voters that would overturn the 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage, Republicans said they’re now simply focused on other issues.

Still, some like Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, the state’s largest gay advocacy group, senses a change.

“I was at an event with a bunch of legislators and they were mentioning priorities and they didn’t mention marriage. I think we are seeing a turning,” said Red Wing, who moved to Iowa so that she could marry her longtime partner. “I think the will is lessening.”

When the court unanimously ruled that Iowa’s ban on gay marriage violated the state constitution’s equal-protection clause, the state became the nation’s third to legalize same-sex unions. Nine states and Washington, D.C., now have legalized gay marriage, and between 2009 and 2011 there were 4,600 gay marriages in Iowa, according to the state department of public health.

Republicans won a majority in the House in 2010 and have tried to begin the multi-step process of referring a proposed amendment to voters, but they have been stopped by Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal. The Council Bluffs Democrat has refused to allow a vote on such legislation, saying he wouldn’t allow debate on a measure that seeks to put discrimination into the state constitution.

Despite a high-profile effort to defeat him last November, Gronstal easily won re-election and Democrats held onto their two-seat majority in the Senate. Republicans retained a majority in the House during the election, which also saw voters retain Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins despite an effort by conservatives to defeat him because he joined in the gay marriage decision.

Given the continued presence of Gronstal and Democratic control of the Senate, Republican leaders said they’re focused on other matters, such as Iowa’s education and property tax system, and not gay marriage.

“We have already voted on that. I don’t know if a bill will be filed. It may or may not be,” said House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake. “The Senate hasn’t changed. The House hasn’t changed. We still support the issue, but the Senate isn’t going to take it up.”

Some Republicans, however, think their party might be slowly shifting its views on gay marriage.

Jeff Angelo, a former Republican senator who now lives in Ames, announced his support for gay marriage rights in 2011. Angelo said he thinks more legislators will change their minds on the issue.

Since same-sex marriage is already state law, Angelo said some Republican legislators might welcome the opportunity to end the campaign for a constitutional amendment.

“I think there’s growing support in the Republican ranks for same-gender marriage, particularly in a state where it is the law of the state. There has been no disaster visited on the state because there has been same-sex marriage,” said Angelo, the founder of Iowa Republicans for Freedom, which supports gay marriage. “I think there are some that have friends, relatives that are gay that would rather just let this go. “

Angelo noted that support for the state’s same-sex marriage law appears to have grown since the 2009 ruling. A 2012 poll commissioned by The Des Moines Register found that 56 percent of Iowans said they would oppose an amendment banning gay marriage. That was up slightly from a year earlier.

Plenty of Republicans take a different view.

GOP party chairman A.J. Spiker affirmed the party’s opposition to gay marriage during a taping Friday of the public television program “Iowa Press,” calling the Democrats the state’s “gay-marriage party.”

Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, said he planned to introduce legislation in the Senate, but acknowledged it would likely not advance.

“I campaigned on this issue and it’s an issue my constituents expect me to take action on,” Guth said. “I’m not holding my breath to see if it’s going to be passed.”

With little happening at the Legislature, groups opposing gay marriage have tried to figure out their approach. Chuck Hurley, vice president of conservative advocacy group The Family Leader, which campaigned to try and oust Gronstal and Wiggins, acknowledged that the short term outlook is bleak for gay marriage opponents in Iowa.

“The makeup of the Legislature is quite similar to two years ago. We don’t need a bunch of votes and all that stuff. We know where people are,” said Hurley. “We’re going to continue to do what we can. The question is what can we do.”

Hurley said the group is already talking to potential candidates to run for the Legislature in 2014 in an effort to get a more supportive General Assembly.

But Red Wing said she thinks more and more states will join Iowa, noting voter approval same-sex marriage in several states in the last election and efforts continuing in Rhode Island.

“Things are moving,” Red Wing said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.