Democrats in the Iowa legislature killed efforts Thursday to bring the gay marriage issue to the ballot, rejecting the pleas of hundreds of demonstrators who flooded the state Capitol in a bid to get legislators on the record for one battle in a same-sex marriage war brewing for the 2010 elections.
Nor is Iowa alone, as a series of actions in the past week have pushed the issue to the front of the nation's politics. The Vermont state legislature became the first to pass a same-sex marriage law democratically, and the District of Columbia decided to recognize gay marriages performed outside the city.
Earlier this week, a group that played a major role in the successful campaign to pass California's Proposition 8 against gay marriage in November took its campaign national with a new ad to air in Iowa and four other states.
But it was a 7-0 decision by the Iowa Supreme Court last week striking down the state's marriage law as discriminatory that started this latest round and prompted Thursday's tumultuous events in Des Moines, upsetting what had been expected to be an uneventful end to the legislative session.
"Let us vote," chanted hundreds of traditional-marriage proponents after Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy ruled out of order a motion to bring to the floor House Joint Resolution 6 - which would have started the process of amending the state constitution.
"We're not going to let mob rule rule this state," Mr. Murphy said as security guards escorted the crowd from the House gallery after the decision.
But a later maneuver to amend a state budget bill to ban same-sex marriage, though it did not pass, succeeded in getting lawmakers on the record in a way that gay-marriage opponents plan to use in 2010 when Iowans vote on state legislators, the governor, and three of the seven justices in last week's ruling.
Under Iowa's cumbersome initiative system, both legislative chambers must pass a resolution in support of the constitutional amendment twice, and in different years, before the measure can make the ballot. The Iowa Supreme Court decision came near the end of this year's legislative session, leaving lawmakers who oppose gay marriage with few options and little time. Not passing an amendment this session effectively delayed by a year any possible vote.
While the Iowa legislature has no legally set adjournment date, lawmakers had expected the session to end Friday. But unrelated budget difficulties required lawmakers to extend the session, probably by about another week, and gave Republicans another opening.
After failing to secure a vote on a constitutional amendment during the morning session Thursday, state Rep. Christopher Rants came back in the afternoon with a provision to the budget bill that would eliminate the budget language and replace it with a plan for a traditional-marriage constitutional amendment.
Mr. Murphy again refused to allow the provision, ruling it out of order.
But after much wrangling, he did allow a vote on whether to suspend the rules and consider the measure. The vote failed on a near party-line 54-44 vote, with two Republicans absent - one is serving in Iraq - and two Democrats voting with Republicans in favor of suspending the rules.
"The speaker went to extraordinary lengths to avoid having that vote; however, the rules were on my side," said Mr. Rants, a Republican and a former House speaker.
Even though the vote was purely procedural, it forced Democrats to go on the record as to whether voters should be allowed to consider the same-sex marriage issue, Mr. Rants said.
"In this case, a procedural vote is a real vote," said Brian English, public relations director for the Iowa Family Policy Center, which co-sponsored the rally. "There are too many people paying attention to this."
Such a vote and a political issue for 2010 was probably the best the Republicans could do after Democrats lined up against challenging the court's ruling this year.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said Monday that he would resist any vote this year on a proposed constitutional amendment. Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, also said he was "reluctant" to support a constitutional amendment affirming marriage between a man and a woman, despite his earlier statements in support of traditional marriage.
Public reaction to the vote also could prompt Republicans to reintroduce the amendment before the session ends in the next week or so. Lawmakers who voted against the measure may come under fire from their constituents, Mr. Rants said.
"They'll have to explain this to the voters," Mr. Rants said. "If legislators who voted no today change their minds and hearts, then I would be happy to bring up the amendment again before the end of the session."
Before the day's legislative maneuvering could get under way, about 600 demonstrators gathered on the west Capitol steps for a rally in support of traditional marriage. After the rally, they moved en masse to the House gallery.
"You can let them know today that this issue is different," Danny Carroll, chairman of the Iowa Family Policy Center and a former Republican state legislator, told the crowd. "This is not about taxes or spending and regulations. This is about morality and the word of God."
Many of the demonstrators wore red, the color of the suit often worn by the Rev. Keith Ratliff, pastor of the Maple Street Missionary Baptist Church and one of the state's most visible defenders of traditional marriage.
They were met by a crowd of about 200 counterdemonstrators supporting same-sex marriage. Many wore white T-shirts with blue dots handed out by One Iowa, a pro-gay rights organization that opposes the proposed constitutional amendment.
"Our message to the legislature is, 'We're proud of you, and we want you to continue to focus on issues that matter to the people of Iowa,' " said One Iowa spokesman Justin Uebelhor. "I think most Iowans' priority is putting food on the table, increasing jobs and rebuilding from the devastating floods."
Iowa is one of five states in which the National Organization for Marriage will be running a $1.5 million ad campaign against same-sex marriage. The group's 60-second TV ad - which also will air in New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, all of which have key statewide elections set for 2009 and 2010 - calls "the biggest lie" about same-sex marriage is that two gay persons marrying doesn't affect others, painting it instead as a threat to religious freedom, free association and school curricula.
In the ads, based on real cases, actors portray people whose same-sex marriages have specifically harmed them, and they are "afraid" that there is a "storm gathering."
"Our goal is to get 2 million activists by the election of 2010 who support marriage, and especially to fight against the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act," National Organization for Marriage Executive Director Brian Brown told Politico.