By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Iowa became the third state in the country and the first from the rural heartland to legalize same-sex marriage when its Supreme Court yesterday unanimously struck down the state's decade-long ban.
Gay advocacy groups hailed the decision as another example of same-sex marriage gaining traction in an increasing number of states, despite a ballot initiative in California last year that banned it there. They also said the emphatic ruling probably will sway other courts, including California's Supreme Court, which must decide by early June whether the November referendum was constitutional.
"Justices look at opinions from other states," said Jennifer C. Pizer, the national marriage project director for Lambda Legal, which brought the Iowa case. "There's a significant likelihood that [the decision] will influence other states, like California."
Efforts to legalize same-sex marriage are also gaining political support. On Thursday, the state House in Vermont overwhelmingly approved a bill legalizing such unions, following a similarly lopsided vote earlier in the state Senate. Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) has said he will veto the measure, but gay advocacy groups noted that the House vote was just four short of the number needed to override a veto.
On March 26, the state House in New Hampshire voted narrowly to allow same-sex marriage in that state, sending the bill to the Senate.
Before yesterday's ruling, only Massachusetts and Connecticut allowed same-sex marriage. New York has said it will recognize such unions performed in other states. California allowed same-sex marriage for about five months last year before the ballot initiative banned it.
The strongly worded decision by all seven justices of Iowa's Supreme Court moves the issue away from more liberal coastal states, where most of the legal and legislative action aimed at overturning bans on same-sex marriage has taken place. While Iowa is home to many conservative Christians and evangelicals, the decision adds to a strong liberal streak that has spawned politically progressive movements.
"Iowa really does have a very impressive visionary history when it comes to civil rights, from desegregation to public accommodation to the rights of women," said Ben Stone, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.
The Iowa Supreme Court decision upholds a lower court's ruling that a 1998 state law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.
"We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective," the justices wrote.
The decision will take effect in 21 days unless a rehearing is requested. Attorneys for Polk County, which challenged the earlier ruling, indicated that the county will not request a review, meaning that same-sex couples will be able to apply for marriage licenses in Iowa in three weeks.
The only other recourse for overturning the decision is a state constitutional amendment, which would take at least two years to be adopted.
At least one group opposed to same-sex marriage, the Liberty Counsel, said it plans to advance a referendum to amend the Iowa Constitution to prohibit same-sex unions. "The Iowa Supreme Court has become a proselytizing engine of radical social change," said Mathew D. Staver, the group's founder. "Untying the knot that holds together traditional marriage will unravel the family, destabilize the culture and harm children."
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) blasted the decision and vowed to effectively overturn it. "This is an unconstitutional ruling and another example of activist judges molding the Constitution to achieve their personal political ends," he said in a statement.
Richburg reported from New York. Staff writers William Branigin in Washington and Kari Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this report.