DES MOINES - The Iowa Senate dealt a stunning defeat Tuesday to supporters of a state constitutional ban on gay marriage, likely closing the book on the politically divisive issue this year.

Senators voted 25-24 to reject a resolution aimed at amending the Iowa Constitution to prohibit legal recognition of same-sex unions. Four Republicans joined all 21 Senate Democrats in shooting down the proposed amendment Tuesday evening.

"People voted their conscience. Rarely does this happen," said Sen. Robert Dvorsky, D-Coralville, who voted no.

Republican Sens. Maggie Tinsman, Bettendorf, Don Redfern, Cedar Falls, Mary Lundby, Marion and Doug Shull, Indianola voted no while 24 GOP senators supported the resolution.

Iowa law already prohibits legal recognition of gay marriages. Opponents of the resolution argued that a constitutional ban is unnecessary.

"I didn't think that we needed it," Redfern said. "It's set out in Iowa law. We don't need it in the constitution."

Sen. Ken Veenstra, R-Orange City, the resolution's lead sponsor, expressed disappointment in his Republican colleagues "who claim to adhere to Republican principles" but voted against the measure. He rejected criticism from opponents who dubbed the bill "mean-spirited" and intolerant.

"It has nothing to do with discrimination (or) bigotry," Veenstra said.

Veenstra and others argued that a constitutional change would guard Iowa's ban against potential court challenges.

Critics of the resolution, however, argued that Tuesday's vote was about election year politics.

"This is already illegal under state law," said Senate Minority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. "Republicans wanted to make it really, really illegal. We thought from the start this is a political exercise. It was about dividing Iowans."

But supporters of the resolution argued that Iowa's constitution should include a defense of traditional marriage, which they contend inoculates society against a litany of social ills. They fear a cultural upheaval at the hands of judges.

Iowa lawmakers waded into the divisive issue as court battles and legislative fights over gay marriage rage in Massachusetts, California and other states. Four states have approved similar amendments.

"It's about defending a 2,000-year-old tradition that has been the foundation for our society," Veenstra said.

"Why is this resolution necessary? To confront the culture of today that would challenge and attempt to change our laws from the bench," he said.

But opponents of the resolution disputed that idea that gay marriages would harm traditional marriage or society.

"It is about discrimination, make no mistake about it," said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who called the bill "meaningless" and "hateful." He charged that many businesses already extend benefits to same-sex couples and that a political stand against gay marriage would have economic consequences.

"This is the civil rights issue of the day, Sen. Veenstra. Rights are being taken away from individuals under your bill," McCoy said.

Sen. Keith Kreiman, D-Bloomfield, argued that a state amendment could still be overruled by federal courts.

"The issue of gay marriages will ultimately be decided by the United States Supreme Court. Nothing we do in Iowa will affect that decision," Kreiman said. "We need to be very cautious in amending our state constitution."

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