Idaho – with a legislature dominated more than 4-to-1 by Republicans – is not the first place you’d expect to see a turning point in the culture wars. But Wednesday, moderate Republicans in the Idaho Senate joined their Democratic colleagues to block a constitutional amendment to define marriage as “only a union of one man and one woman.”
During about 75 minutes of debate, Republican Tim Corder of Mountain Home cited a story from conservative website WorldNet Daily alerting readers that “if the measure does not pass, Idaho would become the first state where such an amendment failed.” Thirteen states approved marriage amendments in 2004, eleven of them on Election Day.
Indeed, history may someday record that the backlash against America’s roll toward a divisive fear-based theocracy began one sunny winter day in Boise, Idaho. Perhaps bolstered by two pages of letters in this morning’s edition of The Idaho Statesman that ran more than 5-to-1 against the amendment, 14 senators opted to kill the bill and redirect the state’s focus toward more pressing issues.
Several senators who spoke against the amendment reminded their peers that Idaho already has a defense-of-marriage law, as well as a state Supreme Court that is elected by the people, not appointed for life as in Massachusetts (where judges OK’d same-sex marriages last year). Citing an editorial against the amendment in his hometown paper, Republican lawmaker John Goedde of Coeur d’Alene added that a door with an existing lock and deadbolt doesn’t really need a third lock.
“I prefer as few laws as possible,” state Senator Brad Little of Emmett said in explaining his decision to vote no. He repeated the idea that Idaho’s generally conservative values are already a safeguard against sweeping social change.
In Idaho, constitutional amendments require a two-thirds supermajority, so the 21-14 vote fell three ayes short of passage. Had the Senate OK’d the amendment, it would have gone on to the Idaho House, where Republicans hold an even stronger majority, and then likely onto the state ballot in November 2006.
Yet despite its heavy Republican bent over the past decade, Idaho has a history of defeating extreme positions on civil rights. In 1994, the state’s voters defeated a proposition that demanded “no special rights” for gays and lesbians. Last winter, a bill similar to this year’s amendment cleared the House but was killed when retiring state Senator Sheila Sorenson, a Republican moderate, declined to give the measure a hearing in the state affairs committee she chaired.
When that hearing finally happened last Friday, amendment proponents leveled a wide array of charges against “the gay lifestyle.” On Wednesday, however, perhaps sensing the amendment’s chances were faltering, co-sponsors Gerry Sweet and Curt McKenzie and their backers urged legislators to let the state’s voters decide the amendment’s fate.
Many lawmakers seemed to realize such a scenario would allow the marriage definition debate to eclipse other state issues. On Wednesday, Boise Republican John Andreason noted that SJR 101 had prompted the longest debate so far of any bill in the legislature’s 24-day run, shoving aside such matters as education and ambitious public works and economic development programs advanced by Governor Dirk Kempthorne (who did not mention same-sex marriage in his State of the State address). “I think this is a small example of what we’ll see in the next election if this is on the ballot,” he added.
In the end, 14 state senators – while considering the “let the voters decide” argument – chose to show real political courage by deciding not to let marriage definition dominate the state’s political agenda for the next 18 months. In doing so, they also beat back the rhetoric of those who seek to marginalize all Idaho families except those headed by a married heterosexual couple. If Idaho can stand up against this sort of mean-spirited extremism, the rest of America can surely do so, too.
blogging from Boise, Idaho
February 2, 2005