By Lisa Keen Keen News Service

Ruling precludes civil unions, domestic partnerships, saying such arrangements would still not be fully equal to marriage

Ken Upton

In an enormous victory for equal marriage rights for gay couples, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously today (Friday, April 3) that gay couples should have the right to marriage licenses the same as heterosexual couples.

News of the victory was available by phone from Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which spearheaded the case.

"We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important government objective," wrote Justice Mark Cady, for the seven-member court. "The legislature has [with its 1998 law banning marriage] excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification."

The court said the law violated the state constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law and that the court’s own constitutional duty "requires" it to strike the law down.

Noting that other supreme courts have allowed legislatures to provide "equal benefits" of marriage through civil unions, the Iowa court said such 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 state’s marriage law — minus the ban for gay couples — must now be applied, said the court, "in a manner allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage."

The decision becomes effective in 21 days.

According to information in The Des Moines Register, in order for this decision to be overturned by a constitutional amendment, it would require approval in two consecutive sessions of the state legislature, followed by a public vote.

Evan Wolfson, head of the national Freedom to Marry group, said: "There’s a rainbow over Iowa today and equality in marriage has come to America’s heartland."

The Des Moines Register reported that people began assembling outside the Iowa Judicial Building early this morning in anticipation of the ruling. The hometown newspaper — which published procedures for how to impeach a judge after the district court judge ruled in favor of gay marriage — today "reported" the ruling was "a victory for the gay rights movement in Iowa and elsewhere, and a setback for social conservatives who wanted to protect traditional families."

The case, Varnum v. Brien, originated with six same-sex couples in Polk County, Iowa — including Kate and Trish Varnum — who sought but were denied marriage licenses by the county registrar, Tim O’Brien. The lawsuit, filed in 2005 by Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, challenged a state law banning same-sex marriage in 1998.

A state district court judge ruled on behalf of the couples last year but delayed enforcement of the ruling until the state supreme court could weigh in. Even so, one gay male couple was able to obtain their marriage license before that suspension went into effect.

The Iowa high court heard oral arguments in the case last December.
Polk County assistant attorney Roger Kuhle relied heavily on arguments frequently used by other states to justify a ban on same-sex marriage: to create a stable environment for procreation and to provide an "optimal" family environment for children.

Eight other state supreme courts have weighed in on same-sex marriage bans: Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California have said their state constitutions required equal treatment of gay couples in marriage licensing.

(California voters last November amended the constitution to ban same-sex marriages; a state supreme court ruling on the validity of that vote is expected by June of this year.)

Vermont and New Jersey said equal benefits of marriage are required but that the state legislatures could provide for those benefits through civil unions, which both legislatures did.

Vermont’s legislature, however, has just passed legislation to provide for equal marriage rights. The governor is expected to veto that legislation over the weekend and the legislature will attempt to override that veto early next week.

The state supreme courts in New York, Maryland and Washington State have ruled that laws banning gay marriage are rational even though the states’ reasons wouldn’t pass many people’s laugh test.

New York, for instance, said banning gay marriage provided an inducement for straight people to marry. Washington said it "furthers procreation" among straights.

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