DES MOINES, Iowa -- Conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats is hoping Iowans will vote today to sack three Iowa Supreme Court judges who took part in overturning a ban on same-sex marriage in the state last year.
The retention election in Iowa of three "activist [state] Supreme Court justices that redefined marriage in the state" is the most important election in the entire country according to Vander Plaats, who has spearheaded efforts to oust the judges.
While the sun set at the steps of the Iowa Supreme Court building last Thursday, a crowd gathered mumbling and nodding in congregation-like agreement to Vander Plaats, waving "No Activist Judges" signs. One man held a sign reading "Not Saying No is Yes," which he elaborated, meant yes to gay marriages.
"We are standing up for the institution of marriage, whose total design is procreation," said Vander Plaats, chair of Iowa For Freedom. "Marriage is the issue, but every freedom is now up for grabs."
Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center, after quoting from Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed Vander Plaats.
"Any middle school child knows that marriage between a man and a man or a woman and woman is not rooted in eternal law or natural law," Hurley said.
The Judge Bus statewide tour across Iowa, co-sponsored by the Family Research Council, concluded with its 20th stop Thursday. Vander Plaats made his final plea for the audience members to tell their friends to vote "no." The actual black and purple bus with the photos of the three justices of Iowa's Supreme Court who are up for retention sat across the street, with messages to vote them out for their "judicial activism" plastered across the vehicle.
Down the hill from where Judge Bus held its final rally, a counter rally was just getting underway, where people waved "Vote Yes, Yes, Yes" signs.
"It's a sad commentary that we're looking at tarnishing the history of Iowa, it's a sad day that we're looking at tarnishing the history of this country," said local state legislator, Ako Abdul-Samad.
Adbul-Samad joined former Republican Lt. Gov. Art Neu, former Democratic Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson, and Republican Dan Moore. Moore, an attorney who served as a secretary/treasurer for two of Vander Plaats' campaigns, admitted the retention issue has put a strain on his friendship with his former boss. When Moore was asked by the Huffington Post why Vander Plaats took a turn from seeking office to the Iowa For Freedom campaign, Moore paused and said he couldn't say really say why.
"Bob will do what he feels is right, he's always had a passion for what he does," Moore replied. "He knows I want to keep politics and campaigning out of the judicial branch."
Moore and Pederson went on to say it's not about personalities, it's about the integrity of Iowa's court system.
The speakers all said that even if the justices were voted out, it would not change the Varnum v. Brien decision, the ruling in question which overturned the 1998 Iowa Defense of Marriage Act, and gay marriage would still be legal in Iowa. However, they said it would lead toward a path of creeping political influence into the judicial branch.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, declared Thursday he favored seeing judges elected by popular vote.
"I don't want to lose my history, it took too long to get here," Abdul-Samad said. "So why would I lose it because we have some individuals who want to moonwalk? Why would I lose it because we have individuals who have no understanding of human rights?"
The Beginning Of The Tour
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was not at the final rally but traveled with it for many of the stops. King was a co-author of the 1998 Iowa Defense of Marriage Act as a then state senator.
"I remember standing there with [state] Sen. Nancy Boettger, discussing how we would get the final language into the code and what it would be," King said to the crowd last week. "It was your voice, the voice of the people who wrote the Defense of Marriage Act."
The speakers wanted their audience to know a few things; they didn't politicize the Iowa court system, it was already politicized. They are not "anti" anything, only pro-justice. But if they don't stop the "judicial tyranny," Iowans should fear losing their property rights, workers' rights and parental rights because when the Iowa Supreme Court declared a state ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional, it was legislating from the bench.
Critics of the campaigns, like former Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark McCormick, said the goal of the groups is to intimidate judges around the country.
"You send a message to these judges on November 2nd, and I will tell you, it will echo all across this land in all 50 states," King said to applause from the crowd.
Nearly every stop included a phrase about what it would mean throughout the country if the campaign in Iowa to oust the judges was successful.
"The whole country is looking at you," said Brian Brown, executive director of NOM, last week. "What kind of country are we? Are we a country in which seven judges can take the entire Constitutional and common-law history of marriage and throw it aside and the people will not have a say, or are we a country where the people of Iowa are going to stand up and say, 'Enough is enough?'"
A counter rally was held that day as well, and some in support of the judges stood by while Brown and King spoke waving signs that said, "Vote Yes, Yes, Yes," while the other crowd held yard signs reading, "No Activist Judges."
Monday's rally also featured Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) who made controversial comments in June and August, claiming women from the Middle East were flying to the United States to give birth to "terror babies" who would then be U.S. citizens.
Carolyn Jenison, executive director for One Iowa said the only reason Gohmert, a former judge in Texas, was there was because they could not find a judge in Iowa who agreed with them.
"These people are really on the fringe -- they're out of touch with America," said Rick Jacobs, founder and chairman of the Courage Campaign. "Nobody turns out for them ... They understand that history is against them and America is a just country that believes in equality -- that's the history of this country."
The Courage Campaign fought against Proposition 8 in California and sent a tracker team to follow the bus tour and interview both speakers and audience members.
During an interview with a supporter named Dave taking photos at the Monday and Thurday rallies, the tracker team was told there was no difference between a same-sex marriage and someone marrying a camera or a goat.
The Money Trail
Iowa For Freedom is a project of the American Family Association. So far the AFA has spent more than $87,000 to fund Iowa For Freedom's operations.
Groups in Iowa have called on Vander Plaats to denounce AFA and Fischer.
"We need Iowans to realize these efforts are being lead by out-of-state extremists," Jenison said in a phone call. "They want them to know that if they don't rule the way these extremists want them to, in accordance with their agenda, they will launch a campaign to remove these justices from the bench. That's right, if judges do their job ... they will be targeted by anti-gay extremists."
Fliers have been mailed across Iowa, in addition to robocalls made encouraging potential voters to vote "no" on the retention of the three justices, but the calls do not say who is speaking or who paid for them.
The Family Research Council spent $4,300 on robocalls to announce the Judge Bus tour.
They filed a disclosure report of an estimated $21,696.63 to be spent on financing the bus tour itself, NOM chipped in $3,071.00.
NOM also spent $60,000 on text messages to push the "no" vote message.
This is all on top of $435,037.00 for television ads purchased.
The Campaign for Working Families PAC also threw in $100,000 for TV ads.
Winding Through Small Towns
The stop in the small town of Fort Dodge, Iowa attracted around 35 people at a central park, in addition to a few counter-protesters holding signs reading "Vote Yes!" and "Haters Go Home." Hurley, head of the Iowa branch of the Family Research Council, and former US Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) spoke in addition to a local Republican state candidate and a concerned mother holding a sign declaring marriage equals one man and one woman, visualized with stick figures.
Santorum reiterated the sentiment that a vote against retention would have effects around the country, and admitted that was partly why he chose to tour with the bus.
"When a state does this, it has a huge impact in other states," he told reporters after the speech.
Santorum said utilizing the retention vote was the only option Iowans had because getting constitutional amendments on the ballot are too difficult, except in California.
Hurley deflected criticism that out-of-state groups shouldn't be getting involved in Iowa, comparing NOM to the National Rifle Association.
"The National Organization for Marriage is interested in all 50 states," Hurley told the Huffington Post.
He further countered gay rights activists brought in national groups, like Lambda Legal, when the whole case of Varnum v. Brien started.
"So it's either willful ignorance on their part," Hurley said, "or it's the height of hypocrisy."
The next day in Carroll, while a counter-protest led by Neu occurred, Hurley strayed from the topic of judicial activism to discuss traditional marriage versus gay couples.
"It's a degradation of God's best design for the family," Hurley told a crowd in Carroll. "An intact father-and- mother marriage is by far more important than a good education, by far more important than their physical health in the well-being of a child."
He then went on to suggest America needed sexuality laws.
After a contentious stop in Carroll, their visit to Marshalltown, another small town, met no opposition, and a supportive crowd of near 25.
Jane Jech, a Republican running for the state legislature, spoke along with King and Vander Plaats and declared same-sex marriages will lead to the "normalization" of homosexuality and court decisions like the Varnum case in Iowa lead to a loss of parental rights as the crowd mumbled in agreement.
King said they didn't need an "expert witness" to explain why marriage should be between one man and one women, considering how procreation occurs.
Vander Plaats answered a few questions from the Courage Campaign tour trackers following the speeches, and said if this issue is about civil rights, then the Court discriminated in their decision because they did not include bisexuals, transgender or "people who want to marry their own children."
The tracker asked, "Who wants to marry their own children?"
"There is a group out there who wants to do that," Vander Plaats replied.
Upon the bus and the speakers leaving, local resident Bob Mason tried to help distribute yard signs before the crowd dispersed. He said he believed Iowa was targeted with the Varnum case; "they" chose the state because they knew they could get gay marriage legalized.
"I mean, I'm a farmer," Mason explained. "You don't see roosters walkin' around holdin' hands."
King and Vander Plaats continually tried to lead audiences to believe if Iowa's high court will declare DOMA unconstitutional they will take away property rights, workers rights, parental control and eventually, King would say, declare the constitution unconstitutional.
"I think the intent of the people opposing retention is to mislead people into thinking by ousting these judges, it will change a past decision," Pederson told the Huffington Post. "But that's not really the case, and they know that, but a lot of other people don't understand that."
Pederson said the campaign's rhetoric is misleading, explaining those rights Vander Plaats claims to be threatened are issues at the federal level.
One man told the Huffington Post after listening to Santorum speak in Fort Dodge he didn't think people around their town knew what to think of the retention vote, because it had never been discussed in the past.
Later on Wednesday, the last stop in Cedar Rapids saw at least 150 counter-protesters at the "Homegrown Justice" rally adjacent to the crowd of 20 who showed up for the Judge Bus tour.
By the time the tours concluded, the bus tour speakers quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson to their supporters, while repeating the "we the people" theme and telling the crowd their constitution is "being made into a stick of wax."
"You have a chance not only to speak to the judicial tyrants in this building and I don't apologize for saying that," Perkins said. "Because these judges have overstepped their bounds... These judges want to take us to a judicial Disneyland. It's fine to have Goofy and Dumbo down there in Disney World but we don't want that in the ranks of the judiciary."