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Iowa marriage-equality backers prepare for vote on justices
by m.c. clark

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Lambda Legal and One Iowa held a town hall at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Aug. 27, signaling the beginning of a new chapter in the campaign to support marriage equality in Iowa. The panel for the event (which also streamed online) included author and activist Zach Wahls, One Iowa Founder and Board Chair Sharon Malheiro, One Iowa Executive Director Donna Red Wing and Midwest Regional Director for Lambda Legal Jim Bennett.

Wahls has recently become a spokesperson for the marriage-equality movement after a YouTube video was posted of his address to the Iowa Judiciary Committee in 2011 concerning a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. He is the author of My Two Moms: Lessons on Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family.

Much of the conversation centered on the upcoming retention vote this November for Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins.

In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Varnum v. Brien that an Iowa law that existed at the time, defining marriage between a man and a woman, violated the equal protection clause in the Iowa constitution. It effectively legalized same-sex marriage in the state, which made Iowa the third of six states to do so.

But in November 2010, three of those justices failed a retention vote that is required for the renewal of their eight-year terms. The votes followed a campaign to remove the judges based on the Varnum decision, and had substantial financial support from the National Organization for Marriage and the American Family Association.

"The latest move to oust judges is, as we know, politics at its worst," Red Wing said during the event, which was broadcast streaming on the Internet. "It's a movement that we believe is mean-spirited and bigoted."

Red Wing said One Iowa is committed to traveling across the state prior to the upcoming retention vote in support of Justice Wiggins. One Iowa has also begun a Why Marriage Matters campaign. It is also a supporter of the Justice Not Politics campaign, which aims to counter out-of-state funding for judicial retention elections.

"To all of us, it felt like a watershed moment," Bennett said during the town hall, providing a national context for the Iowa decision. Bennett stressed that while the removal of the judges has no impact on the decision itself, it does still undermine the judicial process.

"[The goal] was to send a chilling message to judges across the country," Bennett said.

Bennett, who was a leading strategist of Lambda Legal's educational and media efforts in Iowa, told the Windy City Times, "Our hope is to just keep the conversation going and to get Iowans to consider their own judicial process. We don't take judges out based on an unpopular decision. And that is what we hope to achieve nationally."

Lambda Legal has its own Fair Courts Project, which conducts workshops at universities and bar associations.

In May, Public Policy Polling found that 71 percent of voters in Iowa support some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples.

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