Monday, November 24, 2008

Gays, God and Plaques

November 24, 2008, 10:00 a.m.

Iowa City History

The Press-Citizen has editorialized about the value of recognizing and maintaining Iowa City's historic homes and buildings. Editorial, "Iowa City's Rich History is Worth Efforts to Save," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 24, 2008, p. A9. I agree.

Historic preservation is always a balance between nostalgia and history on the one hand and cost and "highest use" on the other. But all too often the lure of the latter is permitted to outweigh the former, such that our search for profit ends up producing our loss.

But there are even simpler, and ever so much cheaper, things to preserve our architectural history that ought to be supported by everyone from the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Association to the Johnson County Historical Society and Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission.

Some years ago I wrote a column noting how little most UI students (and new faculty for that matter) know of those for whom, say, the buildings on the Pentacrest are named, and the history of their construction and use over the years. I suffer no illusion that the column had any impact on anyone's subsequent decision, but I did notice some plaques ultimately sprung up.

The same sort of thing could be done for Iowa City's downtown business buildings. What was the first business to occupy this location? What were the subsequent businesses? Where was that ice cream shop on Iowa Avenue near Clinton? The Iowa, Varsity and Pastime theaters? Winter's Barbershop? The Co-op grocery store on Clinton in the 1940s, long before New Pioneer? How many people recognize that the sculpture near where 9 East Market Street used to be was originally a part of the wading pool in the yard outside the building containing one of the world's first institutions devoted to the study of normal children, the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station?

There's a plaque on the west end of the Benton Street bridge with some interesting history about early travel over the Iowa River, and on the Coralville end of the footbridge about Coralville's early history.

So it's not like we haven't done this at all; I'm just suggesting we do more of it.

Is a plaque the equivalent of the historic preservation of a building? Of course not. But it will cause at least some people to pause for awhile, learn a little bit more about their town, and maybe be a bit more willing to support historic preservation when the time comes.

Gay and Lesbian Marriage

That gay and lesbian couples should be permitted to enjoy the status of "marriage" has always seemed such a no-brainer to me -- whether as a matter of constitutional law, public and social policy, basic fairness, or even economic policy -- that I've not bothered to comment about it.

Now that the Iowa Supreme Court case is putting the issue back in the local news -- including Editorial, "A Case of Civil Rights," The Gazette, November 23, 2008, p. A9, and Jeff Charis Carlson, "Don't Listen to Straw Men," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 23, 2008, p. A9 -- it's probably appropriate to remove any possible ambiguity as to my position.

Any of those of us heterosexuals who are truly concerned about "family values" and "the sanctity of marriage" should reflect upon Pogo's wise observation: "We have met the enemy . . . and he is us" -- up to and including some of our heterosexual public officials and even those ministers who seemingly find it easier to preach than to practice "family values."

There are two separate issues and institutions here -- the state, and religion -- and it is equally important for the integrity of both that their role in "marriage" be kept separate.

This is not just a matter of finely parsed constitutional provisions and language from Supreme Court opinions -- though I believe they support my interpretation. (The First Amendment prohibits the state from either "establishing" or preventing "the free exercise" of religion.) Even without this constitutional protection, as a matter of social and public policy religious institutions should have the right to admit and exclude whomever they choose -- however abhorrent their standards may be. None should be required to provide marriage services for anyone.

Similarly -- and for reasons not limited to constitutional guarantees -- the state (that is, any unit of government) should not be permitted to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference when it comes to the dispensation of basic civil rights and human rights. Any denial of a marriage license by the state should have to be grounded in significant and legitimate (and constitutional) interests of the state -- such as, say, a minimum age requirement, or waiting period, equally applicable to all.

Many of our disagreements regarding acceptable behavior could be at least moderated, if not eliminated, if we could focus on, and agree that there are distinctions between: (a) this is the behavior required of those who belong to our religion, and if you are unwilling to behave that way we will ban you from our religious organization, and (b) this is the behavior required of those who belong to our religion, and we believe so deeply in the importance of these standards that we insist the state to adopt and apply them to everyone on pain of fines and imprisonment. It is a distinction embodied in the bumper sticker: "Opposed to abortion? Don't have one."

In sum, gay and lesbian couples should have the right to obtain a marriage license from the state, but should not have the right to insist that a reluctant religious institution perform a marriage ceremony for them.

Which brings us to the use of the word "marriage" rather than, say, "civil union" -- in a case in which the substantive legal rights granted by either would be identical. Words do matter; wars are fought over them. And I can understand (while rejecting, and not sharing) the feelings of those who feel threatened by gay "marriage" but not by gay "civil unions."

Nonetheless, I guess on balance I think it's a little silly -- and even a bit mean-spirited -- if we are going to grant gays and lesbians the rights of married couples (by whatever name), as I believe we should (and believe the constitution says we must) -- to deny them the added primarily social benefits that flow from being able to characterize their relationship as "marriage."

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1 comment:

John Barleykorn said...

Remember all the beautiful homes that were located where the Law School is now? I can still remember the houses being there as a kid in the 70's. By that time the UI owned most of them and they were temp office space or married student housing.