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Hot Topic: A Gay Marriage Tipping Point?

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
The decision by the Iowa Supreme Court to overturn that state's gay marriage ban is prompting questions about whether or not the battle over gay marriage, long a central focus in the culture war, has reached a tipping point in American culture.

Iowa, as gay marriage backers like to point out, is not a liberal, coastal state like Massachusetts and Connecticut – the two states that already offer legal gay marriage – or California, where the narrow passage of a ballot initiative banning gay marriage last year galvanized the gay rights movement.

It is, instead, a Midwestern state in what is commonly called "the heartland" – an area of America thought to be more reticent to warm to liberal ideas, particularly when it comes to social issues. That's why Richard Socarides, a former adviser on gay rights to President Clinton, argued that the decision "represents the mainstreaming of gay marriage" – it's not just for the "tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving left" anymore.

"As Iowa goes, so goes the nation," he added.

At least that's one argument. It is not, however, the whole story. For one, the Iowa court has a history of being at the forefront of civil rights, as the New York Times points out – it struck down slavery in 1839 and segregation in 1868 and 1873 – and the state may not be quite as emblematic of Midwestern values as some might think. The state also has a reputation for an independent, live-and-let-live attitude that makes it perhaps more open to gay marriage than nearby states.

"People who know Iowa have been saying for some time that it is different from its neighbors," Jennifer C. Pizer of Lambda Legal, which argued the case in Iowa, told the Times.

And even as courts move to invalidate gay marriage bans on legal grounds, it's important to remember that no legislature has yet moved to legalize same-sex marriage – though that could happen this year in states like Vermont and New York.*

Indeed, most Americans do not support gay marriage: According to the latest CBS News poll on the topic, just one in three back full marriage rights for same-sex couples. Another 27 percent support civil unions, while 35 percent want no legal recognition at all.

Those numbers, however, have been moving, and not in the direction gay marriage opponents might like. In 2004, just 22 percent supported gay marriage – which means that there has been a nine-point increase in five years. And even the most optimistic gay marriage advocate would have been hard pressed, 15 years ago, to predict that 33 percent of Americans would be backing gay marriage by 2009.

In fact, the demographics suggest that support for gay marriage will only increase: Opposition comes largely from those 65 and older, just 18 percent of whom support gay marriage. Younger people – those 18 to 45 – are far more supportive, with 41 percent backing allowing same sex couples to marry.

Which brings us back to our original question: Have we reached a tipping point in the debate over gay marriage? Do you think it is just a matter of time before the practice is legal in most (or all) states – and, if so, how long do you think it will that take?

Or do you believe that those who oppose gay marriage will be able to turn back the tide, as they did last year in California? In Iowa, opponents of the decision have vowed to push a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, which could go into effect in 2012 at the earliest.

Let us know your thoughts below.

*Clarification: As commenters have pointed out, the California legislature did pass gay marriage legislation, though it was vetoed by the state's governor. Vermont has recently done the same, though that state's governor has similarly promised to veto the legislation.

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