DES MOINES, Iowa
The gay marriage debate moves to the Midwest this week as the Iowa Supreme Court hears arguments in a challenge to the state's ban on same-sex marriage.
If the high court rules in favor of the half-dozen gay couples who sued, it would make Iowa the fourth state after Massachusetts, California and Connecticut to uphold the right of same-sex couples to legally marry. In California, however, voters have negated the courts by amending the state constitution to ban gay marriage.
The Iowa case has been moving through the legal system for more than three years, and it could take a year or more for the state Supreme Court to issue a ruling after hearing oral arguments Tuesday morning.
Camilla Taylor, an attorney for Lambda Legal, a gay rights organization representing the gay and lesbian couples behind the lawsuit, said the state has historically been a leader in supporting minority and women's rights.
"Iowa has an opportunity to play the role that it often has played in the past - being at the forefront of civil rights struggles - often long before other states were willing to be similarly courageous," she said. "This is not an uncomfortable role for Iowans, and we are looking at them to make a reality out of the promise of equality in the Iowa Constitution."
Lambda Legal filed the lawsuit in 2005 on behalf of six Iowa couples who were denied marriage licenses, as well as three of the couples' children. It names former Polk County recorder and registrar Timothy Brien.
The lawsuit prompted a ruling in August 2007 by Polk County District Court Judge Robert Hanson, who said a state law allowing marriage only between a man and a woman violated the constitutional rights of due process and equal protection.
After that ruling, nearly two dozen people applied for marriage licenses, but only one couple managed to get married before Judge Hanson stayed his decision the next day in anticipation of the state's appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Polk County attorney's office declined to comment on the pending case. In court documents, it has criticized the lawsuit as an attempt to change the way public policy is made.
Maggie Gallagher, president of the Manassas, Va.-based Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, a conservative group that opposes same-sex marriage, said Americans have repeatedly made clear that they want traditional marriage protected.
"I think it has to be clear to judges that Americans do care about this issue, and in 30 out of 30 cases, when they've been allowed to vote, they say that same-sex marriage is not a civil right," she said. "Americans don't think that two men in a union are just the same as a husband and wife, and they don't really appreciate the idea that the legal system is going to force them" to accept that.
Aderson Francois, a law professor who heads Washington-based Howard University's Civil Rights Clinic, said that while a majority of Americans may oppose gay marriage, it should be left to the courts to decide issues of constitutional equality. "It doesn't really matter whether a majority of people want to deny that right; the constitution simply doesn't provide for that," he said.