04.03.2009 10:10am EDT
(Des Moines, Iowa) In a unanimous ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court Friday said that the state law banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional – upholding a lower court ruling.“The Iowa statute limiting civil marriage to a union between a man and a woman violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution,” the justices said in the 69-page ruling.
The court also discounted civil unions as an alternative to marriage.
“A new distinction based on sexual orientation would be equally suspect and difficult to square with the fundamental principles of equal protection embodied in our constitution,” the ruling said.
The decision means that gay and lesbian couples may immediately obtain marriage licenses and be allowed to marry under Iowa law in 21 days.
Several hundred people – supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage – gathered outside the courthouse for the release of the ruling. A number of state troopers also were on hand, guarding the entrance to the building.
When the ruling was issued, gay rights supporters let out a massive cheer.
“Today’s victory is a testament to the strength of love, hope and courage,” Camilla Taylor, senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal and lead architect behind the lawsuit told a news conference.
“Our clients have shown an abundance of all three for many years and now at long last they will be able to marry. This will go down as another proud day in Iowa’s long history of protecting individual rights.”
Dennis Johnson, a former Iowa Solicitor General who also argued on behalf of the gay and lesbian couples had a message for gay couples.
“We have all of you courageous plaintiffs to thank: Go get married, live happily ever after, live the American dream,” he said.
One Iowa, a group supporting same-sex marriage, is planning victory rallies tonight across Iowa.
At the Legislature, Republican leaders renewed calls for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. But some GOP members said that in the days remaining in the session the focus should be on the economy.
Democrats who are in control of both houses and the governor’s mansion said they would not suspend the rules to deal with a proposed amendment.
“Today is a red letter day for the state of Iowa,” said openly gay state Sen. Matt McCoy (D) . “All of Iowa’s citizens now have equal protection under the law. Thousands of Iowans who have worked hard, raised families, and paid taxes will now be afforded the opportunity to marry.”
“As a life long Iowan, I know that fair-minded people throughout our state support equality for all. I have never been more proud of all the Iowans who have worked continuously for the advancement of human rights for all,” McCoy said in a statement.
Among the opponents of gay marriage gathered at the courthouse was Bob Vander Plaats, a GOP candidate for governor. Vander Plaats said the ruling will be a factor in next year’s gubernatorial election.
He accused Democratic Gov. Culver and the Legislature of dragging their heels on pushing for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. If they had gotten on with it “we wouldn’t be dealing with this today,” he said.
Religious conservatives across the country blasted the court ruling.
“Today Iowa becomes the first state not on either of the nation’s two liberal coasts to impose homosexual ‘marriage’ or its mischievous twin, ‘civil unions,’ on its citizens through judicial tyranny. To call this decision bankrupt is to understate its perniciousness,” said LaBarbera, president of the Illinois-based Americans For Truth About Homosexuality. “The evil genius of the pro-sodomy movement is that it targets noble institutions like marriage and adoption in the name of ‘rights,’
and then perverts them to normalize aberrant behaviors.”
Six same-sex couples sued in 2007 for the right to marry. Polk County Judge Robert Hanson struck down the state Defense of Marriage lawn declaring it to be unconstitutional. Later the same day Hanson stayed the ruling pending an appeal.
The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case last December.
Assistant Polk County Attorney Roger Kuhle argued that Hanson had overstepped his authority.
Kuhle also said that state support of same-sex marriage would damage traditional marriage, arguing that it would indicate to future generations that marriage is no longer about procreation.
“One could easily argue, and we do, that fostering same-sex marriage will harm the institution of marriage as we know it,” Kuhle told the justices. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow. We’re not going to see any changes tomorrow, next week, next year, in our generation. But you’ve got to look to the future.”
Lambda Legal attorney Camilla Taylor, representing the six couples who challenged the ban on gay marriage, told the court that the law violates Iowa’s constitution.
Taylor said that the constitution protects gay people’s rights to due process and equal protection.
Dennis Johnson, a former Iowa Solicitor General and now a Des Moines lawyer who also represented the same-sex couples, disputed Kuhle’s arguments that there would be long-term detrimental effects to gay marriage as “highly speculative.”
“The question is: Why are same sex couples kept out?” Johnson asked. “They have families, they would benefit from the stability, the financial stability. Their children would benefit.”
A poll released last year in Iowa found that a majority of people in the state support gay couples rights but are divided on whether that should be marriage or civil unions.
The poll, by the University of Iowa, found that 28.1 percent of those surveyed support same-sex marriage, while another 30.2 percent support civil unions but not marriage. A third of those questioned oppose any recognition of same-sex couples, with about 10 percent having no opinion or refusing to answer.
In a separate case the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that co-adoptions by same-sex parents were legal.
The case involved a lesbian couple who had split up. While they were together one partner had adopted as a co-parent the children of her partner. When the relationship ended the birth mother asked a court if the other woman had visitation rights and could be compelled to pay child support.
A lower court ruled that co-adoptions by same-sex couples were illegal and threw out the case. The Supreme Court disagreed and ordered the lower court to revisit the case.
Friday’s ruling makes Iowa the third state to have legalized gay marriage, after Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Vermont House on Thursday approved gay marriage, but the Republican governor has threatened a veto.
Same-sex marriage was overturned in California in November by voters and a challenge was filed in the state Supreme Court. A ruling is expected within the next 60 days.