Marriage matters as a political issue, a fact we were starkly reminded of when an Iowa judge recently redefined marriage.
In his ruling, Polk County District Court Judge Robert Hanson wished into law the right of "individuals to marry a person of their choosing," with no gender restrictions. He said that Iowa's extant marriage law must be nullified, severed and stricken, and that all references to "marriage" be "read and applied in a gender neutral manner so as to permit same-sex couples to enter into a civil marriage pursuant to said chapter."
There's nothing like a judge's bypassing the democratic process to spur responses from democratic leadership.
Since Iowa is a key state in the presidential election process, the location of this latest judicial overreach naturally encourages candidates' responses. But most GOP candidates wish the issue had never come up, since it's a touchy subject for a party of wide stances.
As it happens, only one of the leading Republican candidates -- Mitt Romney -- supports a federal marriage amendment, which would constitutionally prevent marriage redefinition in the states. So Romney was quick to denounce the Iowa ruling as "another example of an activist court and unelected judges trying to redefine marriage and disregard the will of the people" -- and to declare that this "once again highlights the need for a Federal Marriage Amendment to protect the traditional definition of marriage."
Romney first confronted this issue in Massachusetts. He was governor when the state's highest court executed a similar coup -- the first in the nation to do so. Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, calls the Iowa ruling "Massachusetts deja vu" and says it will have major repercussions: "It certainly makes the case for a Federal Marriage Amendment.
The defeat of the current Massachusetts marriage amendment in the state legislature on June 14 has emboldened the same-sex marriage advocates around the nation. They will undoubtedly press this Iowa issue to the fullest, and I believe same-sex will be a major issue in the 2008 election."
Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council points out that Florida, too, has a marriage showdown looming just in time for the presidential campaign -- and he tells me that while the national GOP might be too "clueless or spineless" to take on the issue, it's in the party's interest to do so.
Pew Research Center polls suggest that at least half of Americans are opposed to same-sex marriage, but you wouldn't know it from listening to the Republicans. At a debate of presidential candidates in New Hampshire days after the Iowa judicial usurpation, a woman in a diner told Fox News reporter Carl Cameron, "We're the state of 'Live Free or Die,' and people should be able to marry the person they love." In response to her statement, just one candidate, Sen. Sam Brownback. R-Kan., had a retort. His answer was right on: Marriage "is a foundational institution."
Critics of a marriage amendment suggest that the Romney/Brownback position won't fly in Iowa, but they may be reading their own biases into the polling. Iowa has a state Defense of Marriage Act, so the need for a national one has not been deeply felt there. This may change in the wake of the court ruling. A temporary judicial stay has kept a mass same-sex-marriage-license line from forming -- for the time being.
Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and longtime observer of the politics of gay marriage, suggests what might happen next: "The fact that the Iowa legislature has passed some anti-discrimination laws does not in any way say that a marriage amendment will fail. ... it's perfectly possible to imagine a legislature that passed antidiscrimination legislation also voting for a marriage amendment."
Pushing the issue of a marriage amendment is not just the civic duty of candidates who believe in it, it's a fundamental building block of society. It's good politics, which will separate those standing up for the traditional family (popular with a healthy portion of the country) and those radicals -- like Hanson -- who don't.