“The court reaffirmed that a statute inconsistent with
the Iowa constitution must be declared void even though it may be supported by
strong and deep-seated traditional beliefs and popular opinion,” read a court-issued
summary of the ruling.
The case, known as Varnum v. Brien, involved six same-sex
couples who sued Polk County Recorder of Deeds Timothy Brien in 2005 for
refusing to grant them marriage licenses.
A district court judge sided with the couples and the state
Supreme Court affirmed that decision, striking the language of the 1998 Iowa
Defense of Marriage Act that restricted marriage to one man and one woman from
The ruling prompted celebration from gay-marriage
proponents, while opponents expressed shock and outrage.
“I’m off the wall,” Democratic state Sen. Matt
McCoy, who is openly gay, told the Des Moines Register. “I’m very pleased
to be an Iowan.”
Attorney Richard Socarides, a former senior adviser on gay
rights to President Clinton, said the ruling carries extra significance coming
from the country’s heartland.
“It’s a big win because, coming from Iowa, it
represents the mainstreaming of gay marriage. And it shows that despite
attempts stop gay marriage through right wing ballot initiatives, like in
California, the courts will continue to support the case for equal rights for
gays,” he told the Associated Press.
Opponents of gay marriage in Iowa were adamant they would
fight on, and said they would pursue a constitutional amendment in the state Legislature.
The soonest such an amendment could be put before voters is 2012.
“This is just one step of many,” Baptist minister
Keith Ratliff of Des Moines said, according to Reuters. “It’s very
important to all of us who are like-minded on this position that the things
that have happened today do not stop us from believing what God has already
ordained in dealing with marriage … so we just move forward.”
State Senate GOP leader Paul McKinley issued a statement
calling the decision “disappointing on many levels.”
“I believe marriage should only be between one man and
one woman and I am confident the majority of Iowans want traditional marriage
to be legally recognized in this state,” he said, according to the
“Though the court has made their decision, I believe
every Iowan should have a voice on this matter and that is why the Iowa
Legislature should immediately act to pass a Constitutional Amendment that
protects traditional marriage, keeps it as a sacred bond only between one man
and one woman and gives every Iowan a chance to have their say through a vote
of the people.”
The Iowa case was being closely followed by advocates on
both sides of the same-sex marriage issue. While much of the debate has played
out on both coasts, at least six states in the Midwest have adopted amendments
to their state constitutions banning same-sex marriage.
However, the justices wrote in their ruling: “Equal
protection under the Iowa Constitution is essentially a direction that all
persons similarly situated should be treated alike. Since territorial times,
Iowa has given meaning to this constitutional provision, striking blows to
slavery and segregation, and recognizing women’s rights. The court found the
issue of same-sex marriage comes to it with the same importance as the landmark
cases of the past.”
According to the Iowa court rules, the decision will take
about three weeks to be considered final, and a request for a rehearing could
be filed during that period. That means it will be at least several weeks
before gay and lesbian couples can seek marriage licenses.
Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said the county attorney’s
office will not ask for a rehearing, meaning the court’s decision should take
effect after that three-week period.
“Our Supreme Court has decided it, and they make the
decision as to what the law is and we follow Supreme Court decisions,”
Sarcone said. “This is not a personal thing. We have an obligation to the
law to defend the recorder, and that’s what we do.”
In the rest of the country, only Massachusetts and Connecticut
permit same-sex marriage. California, which briefly allowed gay marriage before
a voter initiative in November repealed it, allows domestic partnerships.
New Jersey, New Hampshire and Vermont also offer civil
unions, which provide many of the same rights that come with marriage. New York
recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, and legislators there and in
New Jersey are weighing whether to offer marriage. A bill that would legalize
same-sex marriage in Vermont has cleared the Legislature but may be vetoed by