It hasn’t been done since 1920. And experts say it could open a can of worms.
But the Iowa Catholic Conference — “the public policy voice of the bishops of Iowa” — is calling on Catholics to vote on Nov. 2 in favor of a state constitutional convention.
The bishops hope a constitutional convention would approve an amendment recognizing marriage as a union only of a man and a woman.
A pamphlet circulated by the conference lists 14 issues for candidates to be asked about, among them amending Iowa’s Constitution regarding marriage. The pamphlet says a “yes” vote on the ballot measure would allow Catholics and others to work for such an amendment through the convening of a constitutional convention.
The conference has been trying to get an amendment passed for the past decade, said Tom Chapman, its executive director.
Gay marriage has been legal in Iowa since 2009, when the State Supreme Court affirmed a decision that found a same-sex marriage ban violated the Iowa Constitution. Since then, about 1,800 same-sex weddings have been held in Iowa, many by couples who live in other states.
Academics consulted by The World-Herald said they believed the effort to get a constitutional convention is unlikely to be successful, although its success is more likely this year than most other years. The question of holding a convention goes to Iowa voters every 10 years.
“Voters, I think, are by and large leery of constitutional conventions because of the you-never-know-what-you’re-going-to-get aspect,” said Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “People may be interested in one particular issue, but once the delegates get going, nobody knows what they are going to come up with.”
The delegates might not even address the issue. They are appointed by the Legislature, which is currently dominated by Democrats, who have been blocking attempts to debate the issue. Or delegates could pass amendments counter to Catholic doctrine, such as one to reintroduce the death penalty.
But it’s a chance the conference is willing to take, Chapman said. During the last legislative session, Republican lawmakers tried to refer a constitutional amendment to voters, but Democratic leaders blocked the effort.
“The legislative leadership has decided they didn’t want the issue to advance, so it hasn’t been allowed to go through the committee process,” he said. “That’s exactly why this provision was put in by the writers of our constitution.”
If any amendments were approved by delegates, they would not become part of the constitution unless approved by a majority vote in a general election.
“People need to remember that anything that comes out of the constitutional convention needs to go to the people of Iowa for a vote,” Chapman said.
If the voters approved a convention, delegates would be chosen during the next legislative session, though exactly how is unclear, said Ian Bartrum, an assistant professor at the Drake University Law School.
Rich Johnson, the legal director for the state’s Legislative Services Agency, said Iowa voters last called for a constitutional convention in 1920, but it wasn’t convened. Johnson didn’t know why.
At a convention the delegates would debate proposed amendments, and any approved by the delegates would go to the public for a vote. Any amendments approved by a simple majority in a public vote would go into the constitution.
“It’s kind of a convoluted procedure,” said Bartrum, a specialist in constitutional law and theory. “But it’s certainly easier than amending the United States’ Constitution.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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