Iowa and Vermont in the vanguard

The year of the great leap forward?

| 2009 is shaping up to be a remarkable year. In January, we saw the inauguration of the first president who happens to be an African-American. Already that fact has become irrelevant, as Obama rides a wave of public approval (66% approve of how he is handling his job), and the number of people who believe the country is heading in the right direction has more than doubled since he took office (from 15% to 39%) (NYTimes/CBS Poll, April 1-5, 2009). The same poll showed that the favorable rating of the GOP has fallen to 31%, the lowest level in the 25-year history of the question.

Now Iowa and Vermont have taken two giant steps in the advancement of equal rights for gays and lesbians. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state's ban on gay marriage violated the state constitution. Vermont's legislature overrode the governor's veto to become the first state in the Union to legalize gay marriage by legislative action.

It's going to be really hard for the reactionaries to blame this on the elite east-coast media.

Stuart Carlson
Stuart Carlson

Iowa, known for cows, corn, and caucuses, has a long tradition of progressivism: the state rejected slavery in 1839; ruled for desegregation of the state's schools in 1868; allowed the first woman to practice law in 1869. The fact that Iowa has been ahead of the nation on important civil rights decisions was a major factor in choosing Iowa to challenge gay-marriage bans in court (NY Times, 3 Apr 2009).

Nick Anderson
Nick Anderson

Vermont, is the nation's leading producer of maple syrup and practically synonymous with the stalwart New England Yankee. Until the 1970s the state was reliably Republican, although Democrats have dominated recent decades. Since 1903, citizens have been able to carry firearms without a permit. In 1970 Vermont passed the first-in-the-nation law to manage development and its environmental impact. Its two current senators are Patrick Leahy, a liberal Democrat, and Bernie Saunders, a Social Democrat. Vermont was the first state to legalize Civil Unions. Vermonters are known for their independence and independent political thought.


New York, Connecticut, and now Vermont recognize same-sex marriages. New Jersey and New Hampshire recognize civil unions.

California, long a trend-setter and harbinger of things to come, is behind the times. It badly bungled the civil rights issue for gays and lesbians by passing Proposition 8, and the California Supreme Court is deliberating whether to allow or throw out on constitutional grounds that law. It will be interesting to see which way they rule.

There will be those who will condemn the Iowa ruling as judges legislating from bench. But as Iowa Senator Tom Harkin said, "These people on the court are not left-wing people. They are mainstream individuals, and the opinion was unanimous. I daresay it is very representative of Iowa."

In any case, it has always been the role of the judiciary to intervene when tradition and popular majorities violate the rights of individuals and groups. If that were not the case, schools would still be segregated, people of different races would not be allowed to marry, and women would not be able to vote.

But it is inevitable. Equal means equal. No group of people should be forced to accept second-class citizenship with lesser rights than any other. That's the crux of the matter.

Last updated on Apr 13, 2018



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