Civil marriages will still happen in Iowa

american_judgeAn aftermath of the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision to require the state to allow same-sex couples to marry is reported by the The Des Moines Register as a major story with potentially significant implications when in fact it is not that significant of an issue. At least it’s not significant based on the facts buried in the story. Here, a magistrate, not a judge as the headline inaccurately proclaims, announced that he will no longer perform marriage ceremonies partially in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Ultimately, the article gets all the details in the story, but before that, this magistrate’s decision is made to seem to be the next major legal contention that will flow from the court’s decision:

At least one Iowa magistrate has decided that he will no longer perform marriages, a response due in part to the Iowa Supreme Court ruling that allows same-sex couples to marry.

Third District Magistrate Francis Honrath of Larchwood on Wednesday said he will not be performing marriages.

“The Supreme Court ruling had something to do with it, but the truth is it’s not just same-sex marriage I had problems with,” said Honrath, a Creighton University law school graduate who is married and has seven children.

Sure this matters and is definitely news, but primarily at a symbolic level.

What jumped out to me about this story is that it mentions quite early that the magistrate is married with seven children. Is that really relevant to the story to the point that it should be in the third graph? I don’t want to say it’s completely inappropriate, because this story is ultimately about family issues and marriage, but what is the intent of placing this so close to the top? The obvious reason is to indicate that he is one serious Catholic. Six paragraphs later, the article states that the magistrate is a Catholic, but that’s about it when it comes to his religious views.

The article makes clear that performing marriages is completely discretionary. This magistrate is just declining to do a discretionary function of his job. Anybody seeking to have this particular magistrate perform their civil marriage will be disappointed. But as the article makes clear down near the end, you don’t even need a public official to perform the ceremony in order to accomplish the same ends of getting married:

County recorders do not have the option to refrain from marriage duties. Recorders, by law, have no discretion about performing their legal duties, including the issuance or denial of marriage licenses. The Iowa attorney general has advised recorders that failure to issue the licenses could result in proceedings to remove the person from office.

Marriages in Iowa may be solemnized by a judge, an ordained person or designated official of a person’s religious faith.

The Iowa high court opinion specifically differentiates between civil and religious marriages, allowing churches the freedom to accept or decline to conduct marriages for couples based upon their sex.

Judges may increasingly choose to avoid conducting weddings as a way to avoid possible political consequences when up for re-election, said Goldford, the political science professor. It means that all Iowans — including opposite-sex couples — may find it more difficult to find somebody to legally perform marriages for them outside of a church setting, he said.

One magistrate refusing to perform marriages does not indicate a coming flood of civil marriage ceremony abstentions. There are likely others out there that won’t perform marriage ceremonies any more, but as long as this decision is applied uniformly, there isn’t much anyone can do to object.

Whether or not people will find it more difficult to have someone perform a civil marriage is another question. Again, one magistrate out of the approximately 50 people that can perform marriages in that district will hardly be noticed. The article could have noted that if all of a sudden there were a dearth of judges or magistrates willing to perform marriages, the state could authorize other individuals to perform civil marriage ceremonies. Some jurisdictions authorize mayors, clerks and an number of civil authorities to perform marriages.

In general the story includes all the necessary details disclosing the face that this is not much of a story, but there are plenty of quotes in there that hype up this rather insignificant decision by a magistrate to stop performing civil marriage ceremonies.

Print Friendly

  • Dave

    Some Unitarian-Universalists ministers have decided to conduct no marriages until they are free to marry same-sex couples. Makes about as much sense…

  • Jerry

    “The Supreme Court ruling had something to do with it, but the truth is it’s not just same-sex marriage I had problems with,”

    There’s a “last straw” implication to the quote but to me it called out for a followup question as to what the other factors are and especially how important same-sex marriage was as a factor.

  • Kevin J Jones

    The big news is Iowa’s Attorney General reminding county recorder’s offices that they must treat same-sex couples seeking a license the same as opposite-sex couples or face legal action.

    If those who object to conducting same-sex “marriages” can’t be employed at a county recorder’s office or at other local levels, then local government offices will be packed with those who do not object. This will make many offices less representative of their constituencies on a significant issue.

  • FW Ken

    Dave –

    If I were a UU minister wanting to make a statement, I would conduct marriage services for all comers, but refuse to sign any state-issued certificates.

    Some gay friends of mine were talking about getting married (15 years ago in Texas), and could have gone to the MCC church to have it done. I’m staying with one of them this weekend, and he just told me “thank goodness we didn’t do that!”. They broke up about a year later.

  • hoosier

    “Here, a magistrate, not a judge as the headline inaccurately proclaims”

    Thanks for the scrupulous adherence to accuracy, Dave, now five points if you can name the difference between a judge and a magistrate. And here’s some friendly advice; don’t treat a magistrate any differently than you would a judge when your in her/his courtroom, unless you want to go to jail.

    Magistrates are often called magistrate judges. I don’t know what the nomenclature is in Iowa, but I worked in a Commissioner’s court here in Indiana,* and everyone called the Commissioner “judge” (or, rather, “Judge”) without being corrected, or without really being incorrect. The distinction is pretty minor. Do you know what it is?

    *In Indiana, magistrates are appointed by the state, commissioners are appointed by the county. Other than that they’re the same, and differ from judges in the same way

  • hoosier

    And while we’re all being so scrupulously correct, the picture you have is from California, not Iowa. Is it of a magistrate, a judge, a commissioner, a special master, a chancellor? Does it matter?

  • Dave

    Kevin, county office employees are not there to “represent their constituents” like some tinpot patronage-heavy jurisdiction. They’re there to perform the services of the state for all. If they respect the rights of all equally they’re doing their job better, not worse.

  • Dave

    hoosier, I made no reference to the distinction between a magistrate and a judge. I don’t see why your comment was directed at me. My I respectfully suggest that you get a grip?

  • Stephen A.

    “county office employees are not there to “represent their constituents” like some tinpot patronage-heavy jurisdiction.”

    Sounds like the very definition of PATRONAGE to me, if they’re gong to be fired and replaced with “right-thinking” employees.

  • Dale

    Kevin, county office employees are not there to “represent their constituents” like some tinpot patronage-heavy jurisdiction.

    You mean like San Francisco and Gavin Newsome?

  • Dave

    Stephen and Dale, at least you responded to something I actually said.

    Nobody’s getting fired if they do their jobs. If the right wing wants to claim it’s being purged, they’ll have to give their bosses due cause to fire them.

    Hello, are there any journalism issues to be discussed on this journalism blog?

  • dalea

    The article begins by assuming that the reader understands all the distinctions between judges, recorders, magistrates and where the office is on the state/county/municipality scheme of things. It would be helpful to explain the layout of things, and state which are elected and which are appointed. Also, which ones are civil service. The general reader, including many in Iowa, could be very foggy on this.

    Iowa used to have a state run liquor store system that was truly bizarre. So, I would not conclude that Iowa has a fairly simple marriage license system. The article could explain where you go to get a marriage license. Is it the town hall, the county court house or something else? In Illinois, you get your car license plates at your local bank, so there are other options. Banks would have promotions in which the prize was not a toaster but license plates. Indiana had a minimum age of 14 for marriage. Iowa maintained survelience teams in other states to check for Iowans buying liquor; the interstates going into Iowa would have check points that searched for smuggled liquor. Traffic backed up for miles.

  • Dale


    Hello, are there any journalism issues to be discussed on this journalism blog?

    Er, the tangent was yours, my friend.

    Anyhow, even as a non-Catholic I can understand why a Catholic magistrate might have qualms about performing civil marriage ceremonies, without same-sex couples as an issue. Divorced Catholics who remarry can’t get married in the Catholic church, so they would seek a civil ceremony. To the Roman Catholic Church, such a “marriage” is formalized adultery; what’s more, it’s an abuse of a sacrament. The magistrate would take an active, enabling part in a scandal by an errant church member. I don’t know about Roman Catholic attitudes on church discipline, but in my tradition, that would be worse than involvement in a ceremony between two nonmembers, no matter what the sex.

    So, if the activity is discretionary, I can see why the magistrate might avoid it. Unfortunately, the reporter focused only on the same-sex controversy, and ignored a clear indication that other factors were involved. I’m left to speculate.

  • Dave

    My “tangent” was a comparable action taken by UU ministers on the other side. The spectre of the purge of Christian believers from county offices, I can take no credit for.

  • benjdm

    Sounds like the very definition of PATRONAGE to me, if they’re gong to be fired and replaced with “right-thinking” employees.

    If “right-thinking” consists of following the law, then yes, I would hope they do stack the office with such people. Just as they had to previously stack the office with people who would follow the law and refuse to marry same-sex couples.

  • Dave Vander Laan

    The Des Moines Register used to be the ‘paper that Iowa reads.’ Now, not so much – unless you live in Des Moines or Iowa City.

    I live in the northwest corner of the state (30 miles from Larchwod and also in Lyon County) & The Register, as a newspaper, doesn’t carry much weight in these parts. We like the sports coverage because we like our kids to get noticed on a state-wide basis when it comes to ‘all state’ selections. But usually when The Register offers some ‘space’ to some ‘happening’ in this corner of the state, we’re not trusting of the motives: Is it news, is The Register trying to stir the pot to get reaction, or are the political and cultural values being mocked?

    Because The Register has burned us before, we frankly assume the latter, even though it’s not nice to judge.