In a landmark decision, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state’s 1998 legislative ban on same-sex marriages “denies gay and lesbian people the equal protection of the law promised by the Iowa Constitution” (see Varnum v. Brien, 2009). Political interest in the significance of the case is more intense than usual. Iowa is at the leading edge of the “heartland,” one might say, and the court’s holding was cheered by gay rights activists as reaffirming their sense of historical right. The decision clearly emboldened backers of the nationwide campaign for same-sex marriage equality. Their sense might be: “If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere!”
Conservatives, on the other hand, while offering comparatively less judgment relative to the left’s partisans, are clearly troubled by the ruling. As Ed Whelan observed, the decision represents a “lawless judicial attack on traditional marriage and on representative government.”
For background, Dale Carpenter at Volokh Conspiracy offers a quick analysis of the legal principles involved in case. In my reading, I noticed a highly procedural tone to the decision, with the justices offering little substantive discussion of traditional objections to same-sex marriage outside of the litigant’s motions.
My interest here is to flesh out the implications of the ruling for the remnants of social conservatism in an age when secular progressivism appears on the march. Between the radical gay rights progressives and the left-libertarians (“liberaltarians”) pushing for a “postmodern conservatism,” traditional social values are indeed under attack.
Recent events on the gay marriage front began to really pick up steam last May 2008, when the California Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Then in November, California voters approved Proposition 8. The measure revised the state constitution to make marriage available only to one man and one woman. Radical street protests began the next day. The political environment across the state became a pressure-cooker of left-wing intolerance and recrimination. Activists forced out Scott Eckern, the director of the California Musical Theater in Sacramento, after it became known that he’d contributed $1,000 to the Yes on 8 campaign. In Los Angeles, Marjorie Christoffersen, a manager at El Coyote restaurant, a popular eatery with gay constituencies, was threatened with a boycott. Christofferson, who is Mormon, was devastated by the activists’ venom directed at her, and she left town fearing persecution. Conservative author Diana West likened the ordeal to that of a “Soviet show trial.”
As one who practically live-blogged the months-long “No on H8” backlash, I personally received e-mails from Yes on 8 backers distraught by threats against their livelihood. Their identities were published as part of the anti-gay blacklist. One website, called Prop 8 Maps, went so far as to provide mash-ups of donors’ contributions and addresses on Google Maps. Although donor-mapping was rejected by many as NKVD tactics, prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan (who is gay) quipped, “If Prop 8 supporters truly feel that barring equality for gay couples is vital for saving civilization, shouldn’t they be proud of their financial support?”