TOPICS > Politics

Iowa, Vermont Push Gay Marriage Rights Forward

April 8, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Vermont's legislature and the top court of Iowa delivered legal victories in recent weeks to those seeking the right of same-sex couples to marry. And as battles in other state capitals continue, Americans are weighing the issue with other pressing concerns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Backers of same-sex marriage gained a major victory at the state level yesterday, capping a week of big developments in the battle playing out in state courts and capitals.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins with some background.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was an emotional moment for supporters of same-sex marriage in Vermont. On Tuesday, legislators there voted to legalize same-sex marriage, narrowly overriding a veto from Republican Governor Jim Douglas.

Shap Smith is the House speaker.

REP. SHAP SMITH, D, Vermont House speaker: For the people who are voting to override the veto, they are basically voting to support the majority of Vermonters.

KWAME HOLMAN: Vermont’s vote marks the first time a state has allowed same-sex marriage by legislative action rather than a court ruling. It also makes Vermont the fourth state — joining Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa — to allow gay marriages.

The decision came just days after Iowa’s Supreme Court voted unanimously to legalize gay marriages there. Kathy and Kim Gibson arrived at their county recorder’s office on Monday to apply for a marriage license.

KATHY GIBSON, newly married: Why is being the first important? Because we’ve been waiting for 18 years.

KWAME HOLMAN: Supporters celebrated the back-to-back victories. Beth Robinson is with the Freedom to Marry Task Force in Vermont.

BETH ROBINSON, Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force: I think the Iowa Supreme Court decision on Friday really drove home that this isn’t some radical, newfangled idea that’s going away.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Governor Douglas said many disagreed with the decision to allow same-sex marriage.

GOV. JIM DOUGLAS, R, Vermont: I think this is such an emotional, divisive, personal issue, it’s something that individuals have to decide how to vote on based on their personal convictions and faith.

KWAME HOLMAN: The battle is hardly over. California’s top court allowed gay marriages last year, but a voter initiative in November reversed that decision.

Meanwhile, there are other efforts to provide legal protections for same-sex couples. Washington, D.C.’s, city council voted yesterday to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. New York state already does so.

Five more states — New Jersey, New Hampshire, Washington, Oregon, and California — provide some legal protections for civil unions or domestic partnerships.

But voters in 29 other states have approved constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

Impact of the decision

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for more on these developments, we turn to Jessica Garrison. She's been covering this issue for the Los Angeles Times.

Jessica, two states in quick succession. How big a deal is this?

JESSICA GARRISON, Los Angeles Times: Well, I think that depends on who you ask. Supporters of gay marriage think it's a very big deal. They were very disheartened when Proposition 8 passed in California last November, which took away the right to marry in California.

But then to discover that the Iowa Supreme Court was going to allow gay marriage and then, four days later, that Vermont was going to allow it really made people feel like the momentum is on their side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did the proponents pull this off? What was involved? I know it's different getting it through a legislature than it is when a supreme court moves, as in Iowa, but what's behind this?

JESSICA GARRISON: Well, you know, there are gay rights activists in every state pushing for gay marriage. And, you know, in terms of how proponents pulled it off in Iowa, that was simply a ruling by the Supreme Court.

In Vermont, the -- you know, Vermont has long been on the cutting edge of a lot of civil rights issues. They were the first state in the union to recognize civil unions. And there were legislators there that were very committed to doing this, and they laid the groundwork, and they were able to do it, and then they were able to override the veto.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there somehow more authority invested in a move like this when it's a legislature that passes a law rather than a court ruling?

JESSICA GARRISON: Well, again, I think, like a lot of things on this debate, that depends on who you ask. I think a lot of the people in support of gay marriage would say to that question, yes, of course, because the lawmakers represent the will of the people and so this is a more direct endorsement of gay marriage than maybe a court ruling.

I think that opponents of gay marriage would answer that question differently. And they might point out that Vermont is a very liberal place, that the population of Vermont is only 600,000 people, and then they would also probably tell you that they don't think, even given those things, that it does represent the will of the people of Vermont.

Activists push for legislation

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you have a sense of why all this is happening right now? Is it just a coincidence? Is there some underlying reason why there's more...

JESSICA GARRISON: Well, I think that -- I think Vermont and Iowa happening at the same time is sort of a coincidence. You know, I think that the reason that all of the states are grappling with this is because people are introducing legislation.

And the reason people are introducing legislation is that gay rights activists and their supporters in every state are pushing for it. So that's why all this legislation is coming up.

The court cases are coming up in part because people are filing lawsuits, and the lawsuits are working their way through the courts, and they're reaching, you know, the supreme courts, and they're being decided.

So, you know, in part, it's coming up because people are pushing for it to come up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how are opponents reacting? Are they planning to try to undo, unwind all of this?

JESSICA GARRISON: I think that people are preparing for battle in Iowa. Opponents also released some television advertising across a lot of markets in the Northeast that advertise against gay marriage and in favor of traditional marriage, though they were planning to put those out a little bit later this spring, but after what happened in Iowa and Vermont, they stepped it up and released it this week.

You know, they're also preparing to try to do in Iowa what they did in California which was to amend the state constitution. It's a lot harder to amend the constitution in Iowa than it is in California, and it will take at least two years to do that there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it sounds like this has been kind of a wake-up call for the anti-gay marriage folks?

JESSICA GARRISON: Well, I'm not sure that they were asleep. I mean, they did spend, you know, upwards of $35 million in California last fall. I think that Iowa really sort of took people by surprise.

And so they have -- I think that -- you know, I, just as I was coming to the studio to do this interview, got an e-mail from one of the opponents of gay marriage group, urging me to as a -- you know, not urging me, but urging supporters of traditional marriage to start calling legislators in Iowa. So they have definitely stepped it up in the days since these two actions were taken.

Upcoming battles

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what's your sense, Jessica, of how this plays out in the weeks and the months to come? What other states? I know Kwame Holman mentioned some of this in that report, but what other states should we look to, to see some changes?

JESSICA GARRISON: Well, you should definitely look at New Hampshire. You should look at New Jersey, New York, Maine. All of those states are considering legislation.

And then, of course, out here, all eyes are on California, because everybody's waiting to see what the Supreme Court will do. And if the Supreme Court upholds Proposition 8, you know, the gay rights supporters already have field organizers on the ground getting ready for the next campaign when this comes back on the ballot as soon as 2010.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, in the background, public opinion -- I was reading today there has not been much of a shift in that regard?


JUDY WOODRUFF: What's your reading on that?

JESSICA GARRISON: Well, I think the polls are exactly -- they tell you exactly that, that this is an issue that people feel very strongly about, they don't move very much on this issue, and that there really hasn't been much of a shift.

So I think that's an interesting question. How you -- you know, in order to -- for example, in California, they waged one of the most expensive campaigns ever fought, and they were really fighting over a tiny, tiny slice of the electorate, because those are the only people who are ever going to change their opinions on this. Both sides have very passionately held views that just don't move.

You know, I think what people will tell you is that the younger the voter, the more likely they are to support gay marriage. And so a lot of gay rights activists believe that time is sort of on their side, because as, you know, you get more young voters and as older voters -- as the electorate grows younger, that time will help them on this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we hear you. And Jessica Garrison with the Los Angeles Times, we thank you very much.