Congratulations, Iowa!

Last week, friends of equality had some very welcome news: the Supreme Court of Iowa has unanimously struck down a ban on gay marriage in that state. No blue state this, no liberal haven like California or Massachusetts that is so often demonized by conservatives and religious right bigots: Iowa is part of the mythologized “American heartland”, a midwestern swing state whose electoral votes went to George W. Bush in 2004 (although Barack Obama won it in 2008, and Democrats currently control both houses of the legislature). Iowa is now poised to become the third American state, after Massachusetts and Connecticut, to have full marriage equality. (A marriage-equality bill recently passed both houses of the Vermont state legislature, but may fall just short of overturning a promised veto by Vermont’s Republican governor.)

This resounding victory shows how the tide of history is turning in our favor. Despite setbacks, the idea of marriage equality is steadily gaining momentum across the country, and is beginning to take hold not just in coastal blue states, but in areas that have historically been conservative.

Even better, because of the restrictive nature of Iowa’s amendment process, an anti-gay-marriage amendment to the state constitution could not be ratified any earlier than 2012 – and that’s assuming such an amendment was approved by the state legislature this session, and that looks unlikely. This means that this ruling will have time to sink in; the people of Iowa will have time to get to know their gay and lesbian neighbors and realize that their marriages in no way threaten society. That’s always the best way to counteract prejudice: to make visible and to humanize the people whom bigots would prefer to portray as alien, fearful creatures who threaten our way of life.

Predictably, religious conservatives have begun their familiar squalling about “judicial activism“, a phrase that means nothing other than “a decision I disagree with”. As always, they refuse to recognize that the American republic is in many ways an explicitly counter-majoritarian system, one where mob rule or popular prejudice cannot take away from the rights of all people to equal treatment under the law. Most importantly, we live in a secular nation, where laws cannot be based solely on religious belief, and must be justified by appealing to a valid state interest.

There was one religious-right bigot whose complaint I wanted to focus on, however, and that’s Rod Dreher, who laments that gay marriage was “forced on Iowa” by this decision. What he means by this is unclear. Is anyone being forced to get a gay marriage? Of course not. Is anyone being forced to approve of it, or even to like it? Obviously, the answer is again no. What he seems to mean – the only thing this even could mean, as far as I can see – is that Dreher and his ilk are being “forced” to allow other people to have equal rights, and can no longer invoke their religious beliefs to tyrannize others and control their lives under color of law. If so, I’m glad, and I hope we see a lot more of that “forcing”.

But on to Dreher’s complaint:

The lawyer said that as soon as homosexuality receives constitutionally protected status equivalent to race, then “it will be very hard to be a public Christian.” By which he meant to voice support, no matter how muted, for traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality and marriage. To do so would be to set yourself up for hostile work environment challenges, including dismissal from your job, and generally all the legal sanctions that now apply to people who openly express racist views.

I don’t know what “legal sanctions” Dreher imagines there are for racists. When last I checked, we still live in America, where the First Amendment protects the expression of all views, even unpopular ones. Of course, businesses and other private associations can maintain their own standards, and if you decide to harass gay coworkers or use the workplace as a forum for proselytization or religious discrimination, then your employer certainly does have the right to take action against you. (Dreher also ludicrously asserts that “People who favor gay rights face no penalty for speaking their views”. Has he ever even been to most parts of America?)

Dreher’s argument essentially can be summarized as this: “I hold views that are bigoted against gays. But if society becomes more accepting and tolerant of gays, I will be ostracized and there may be repercussions in my career or my personal life. This violates my right to free speech. Therefore, the only way to protect my right to free speech is to ensure that bigoted views like mine remain in the majority and enshrined by law.”

This is what I call the fallacy of free speech: the view, common among Christian conservatives, that respecting their right to free speech requires that their opinions be agreed with and treated as true. If their prejudices aren’t in the majority, then that means that people are discriminating against them. In reality, having a right to free speech does not mean that your views will be popular, well-liked or accepted. You may even be ostracized, excluded or boycotted for speaking them. All it guarantees is that the state will not censor your views or punish you for voicing them.

More importantly: Rights for gays and rights for Christians are not a zero-sum game. Dreher takes it for granted that every expansion of gay rights means less freedom for Christians, but there is no such tradeoff. Granting gay people greater freedom does not in any way detract from his ability to believe exactly as he wishes, unless he believes his faith requires him to control the lives of others and force them to live according to his norms. If that is the case, then there’s indeed a tradeoff, but the fault lies not with gay and lesbian couples who only want to pursue their own conception of happiness free of interference; the fault lies with those religious theocrats who want to oppress and discriminate. They, not the gays, should recognize that their aims are evil ones and leave other people to live their lives in peace.

UPDATE (4/7): I’m very happy to say I was too pessimistic. Just days after the Iowa ruling, the Vermont legislature successfully overrode a veto from the governor to make same-sex marriage legal. Congratulations are in order! I should note for the record that Vermont is the least religious state in the U.S. by a wide margin.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • TJ

    Bill Maher, on Real Time last Friday, summed it all up in one word of disbelief: “Iowa?!” If sanity can come to the Heartland, then maybe there is hope for all of us, eventually.

  • Dan

    Iowa has a long socially progressive tradition; it (and Wisconsin) are the Vermonts of the midwest. Iowa was the first state to mandate integrated public schools (almost a century before the U.S. Supreme Court did so), it was the first state to admit women to the practice of law, the first state to permit interracial marriage, and now is the third state to legalize gay marriage. Iowa was also the home of Henry Wallace who FDR found a tad too radical to be his vice president. And I seem to remember Sen. Tom Harkins speaking out as a frequent critic of Bush. While it is a “heartland” “fly-over” state, it’s hardly a conservative one.

  • Sus

    Thank you Iowa for showing the remaining 47 states, how its done.

    And honestly, I’m at a loss.. I don’t understand how Christians, whom claim to be well versed in The Good Book, can argue that “the word of God” in Leviticus 18:22 has more weight and meaning than “the word of God” in Deuteronomy 22:5. And yet both sins are clearly defined as “abomination” unto God.

    Perhaps we should start protesting ‘pants on women’ at Anti-Gay Marriage rallies, to show them how superficial their arguments truly are?

  • Alex, FCD

    As always, they refuse to recognize that the American republic is in many ways an explicitly counter-majoritarian system, one where mob rule or popular prejudice cannot take away from the rights of all people to equal treatment under the law.

    Except in California.

    What he means by this is unclear. Is anyone being forced to get a gay marriage?

    As is often the case, Jon Stewart said it best: “I would be against gay marriage if it were manditory.”

  • http://superstitionfree.blogspot.com Robert Madewell

    … as soon as homosexuality receives constitutionally protected status equivalent to race, then “it will be very hard to be a public Christian.” By which he meant to voice support, no matter how muted, for traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality and marriage. To do so would be to set yourself up for hostile work environment challenges, including dismissal from your job …

    Sounds like Dreher is playing the persecution card mixed with a slippery slope.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Rights for gays and rights for Christians are not a zero-sum game.

    Exactly. If there’s one thing I can’t stand is when the anti-gay marraige crowd screams that they don’t want gay marriage forced down their throats. How exactly is gay marriage being forced on them?

    Gays are a small percentage of our population, and the percentage of gays who are likely to get married is a subset of that population. Most of these Bible thumpers will never even meet a gay married couple, but just knowing that there might be some of them out there somewhere makes them mentally unbalanced.

  • anna

    I think some people are under the impression that hate speech laws will soon come to America and prevent people from speaking out against same-sex marriage on penalty of jail time or fines. But although this has happened in other countries, I am confident that America is too proud of free speech to enact such laws. After all, we don’t even have laws making holocaust denial illegal, we aren’t suddenly going to have laws making criticizing homosexuality/same-sex marriage illegal.

    Maybe you could call it “same-sex marriage”, by the way, so as to include lesbians?
    I know lesbians are supposed to be included when you say “gay”, but that seems to me like saying women are supposed to be included when you say man (as in “Early Man discovered fire.”) So that might be a nice gesture. Not saying you have to.

  • ex machina

    As an Iowa native, I was surprised, but not completely. What Dan said about being progressive is right. Iowa is a weird place: red on the surface, blue underneath. Once a socially progressive movement gets going, a lot of Iowans you wouldn’t expect step forward to support it.

    Due to the difficulty of changing the state constitution, it may just stick. There are a lot of Christians in Iowa, but I predict that many of them value a secular government highly enough to allow the ruling to stand.

  • Alex, FCD

    If there’s one thing I can’t stand is when the anti-gay marraige crowd screams that they don’t want gay marriage forced down their throats.

    “Paging Dr. Freud. Dr. Sigmund Freud, please call your office.”

  • velkyn

    “Predictably, religious conservatives have begun theiir familiar squalling about “judicial activism”, a phrase that means nothing other than “a decision I disagree with”.”

    Oh so true. You never hear about “judcial activism” if these idiots benefit from a judge’s ruling. One would think that these people who are so scared of everyone having the same freedoms, assume no one notices their hypocrisy.

    “Perhaps we should start protesting ‘pants on women’ at Anti-Gay Marriage rallies, to show them how superficial their arguments truly are”

    I’m all for that, sus. God hate pants!

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    In reality, having a right to free speech does not mean that your views will be popular, well-liked or accepted. You may even be ostracized, excluded or boycotted for speaking them. All it guarantees is that the state will not censor your views or punish you for voicing them.

    Well said. Of course, unlike the privileged Christian believers in the USA, atheists and adherents of religions other than Christianity have understood this for a long time.

  • penn

    We should never forget and frequently remind others that the religious right was originally formed to push back against school integration. These people are bigots to the core, and they are afraid they will rightly look like the hateful kooks they are for hating gays and lesbians.

  • Reginald Selkirk
  • Leum

    Does anyone know if there’s a plan out there for states with constitutional amendments against gay marriage? My state’s got one so we can hardly wait for our court to strike it down.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    As Reginald noted, Vermont passed a marriage-equality bill today, over the governor’s veto. I defy anyone to read a story like this one and not get a little misty:

    Among the celebrants in the lobby were former Rep. Robert Dostis, D-Waterbury, and his longtime partner, Chuck Kletecka. Dostis recalled efforts to expand gay rights dating to an anti-discrimination law passed in 1992.

    “It’s been a very long battle. It’s been almost 20 years to get to this point,” Dostis said. “I think finally, most people in Vermont understand that we’re a couple like any other couple. We’re as good and as bad as any other group of people. And now I think we have a chance to prove ourselves here on forward that we’re good members of our community.”

    Dostis said he and Kletecka will celebrate their 25th year together in September.

    “Is that a proposal?” Kletecka asked.

    “Yeah,” Dostis replied. “Twenty-five years together, I think it’s time we finally got married.”

  • Christopher

    Rights for gays and rights for Christians are not a zero-sum game.

    Oh, but they are – if one expands the definition of “right” to include “forcing ones mores and values down some one else’s throat.”

  • http://www.atheistrev.com vjack

    Vermont is starting to sound pretty damn good.

  • Eric

    Way to go Iowa and Vermont.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    You don’t see meaning of these folks refraining from bacon or ham, either.

  • Alex, FCD

    Ridger:

    You don’t see meaning of these folks refraining from bacon or ham, either.

    Gay people? Iowans? Vermonters? Wrong thread?

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    I think Ridger was expanding on the women wearing pants idea?

  • Samuel Skinner

    From a useful source:
    “Somewhat on a tangent to the current thrust of the thread, but if anyone ever needs to smack down someone who whines about “legislating from the bench” (which is what this sort of thing always casues to happen), here’s a study of what the term “legislating from the bench” actually means (PDF) by Bruce G. Peabody.

    http://www.lclark.edu/org/lclr/objects/LCB_11_1_Peabody.pdf

    It also has conveniently outlined that recently it’s been conservatives mainly and there is trend for the Republicans to bleat about this whenever something doesn’t go the way the troglodytes want. So if anyone asks about studies or says “that’s not what I meant”, that document has enough explosives to utterly flatten any objection they may want to raise.

    And it actually goes a bit further than that, stating that due to the nature of the judiciary, precedent creation and a certain amount of legislating from the bench is not only inevitable, but necessary and desirable.”

  • Samuel Skinner

    Oh, and I got it from here- wouldn’t want to plagerize.:
    https://bbs.stardestroyer.net/viewtopic.php?f=22&t=133240&p=3060131#p3060131