The Iowa Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage Friday, shifting the cultural debate on such unions toward the nation's heartland and away from the more liberal coasts.
In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that a state law restricting marriage to a union of a man and a woman violated the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution, which requires that "all persons similarly situated should be treated alike," according to the court´s 69-page decision.
"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," said Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady in the decision. "The Legislature has excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification."
The ruling quickly set the stage for a legislative duel between both sides of same-sex marriage. Backers of gay marriage hailed the seven-member court´s decision as a landmark civil rights victory, while proponents of traditional marriage vowed to bring the issue before the Legislature and the voters.
Iowa becomes the third state where gay marriage is recognized. Homosexual couples may also marry in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
In all three cases, the respective states´ high courts were responsible for striking down laws barring same-sex marriage. The California Supreme Court ruled last year in favor of same-sex marriage, but was overruled by a statewide initiative affirming traditional marriage in November.
The Iowa decision takes effect April 24.
"This is an amazing day - we´re smiling ear to ear," said Jason Morgan, one of the case´s plaintiffs.
Social conservatives, however, said the Iowa decision came as a punch in the gut.
"This is the first time gay marriage has been imposed on the Midwest and not the liberal coasts," said Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth, a pro-traditional marriage group based in Illinois. "This is the first time we´ve seen this in the middle of the country. Having this ruling come down in the Midwest, and then having it unanimous, is shocking."
U.S. Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, blasted the court in a statement for what he described as pushing a social agenda through undemocratic means.
"This is an unconstitutional ruling and another example of activist judges molding the Constitution to achieve their personal political ends," Mr. King said. "Iowa law says that marriage is between one man and one woman. If judges believe the Iowa legislature should grant same-sex marriage, they should resign from their positions and run for office, not legislate from the bench."
He called on Iowans to pass a traditional marriage amendment to the Iowa Constitution. He also asked the legislature to pass legislation enacting a residency requirement on issuing marriage licenses so that the state doesn´t become "the gay marriage Mecca."
The opposition´s best hope for overturning the court ruling lies in bringing a traditional-marriage constitutional amendment before the voters, the same strategy employed successfully last year in California. In this case, however, Iowa is no California.
California´s initiative-friendly system allowed opponents to gather signatures and place the proposed amendment on the November ballot in a matter of months. In Iowa, both houses of the state legislature must approve a proposed constitutional amendment for two consecutive years before it can be put on the ballot.
That means that 2011 is the earliest that such an amendment can go before the voters, a fact that probably wasn´t lost on same-sex-marriage advocates, said Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, which was active in last year´s California campaign.
"The fact that this happened in Iowa, a state without a direct referendum or initiative process, isn´t surprising," he said. "In the wake of California, the focus is on states like Iowa and Vermont, where there´s no direct mechanism for a vote of the people."
Brian English, spokesman for the Iowa Family Policy Center, said conservatives will be putting pressure on the legislature to introduce constitutional-amendment language. Already, however, some Democratic legislative leaders are saying there isn´t enough time to consider the issue before the legislature adjourns in a few weeks.
Democrats control both houses of the Iowa legislature. The governor also is a Democrat.
"It didn´t take long for us to turn our focus from the court across the street to the state legislature, which is where this will be fought next," Mr. English said.
The case was brought by six homosexual Iowa couples who were denied marriage licenses in 2005. Polk County Judge Robert Hanson sided with the couples in 2007, but his decision was put on hold until the high court could rule.
The plaintiffs were represented by attorneys from New York-based Lambda Legal, which announced Friday that the group would be sponsoring marriage rallies across Iowa over the next few days.
"This ruling is a huge step forward and a cause for celebration, but recent history demonstrates the need for continued engagement if we are to achieve lasting equality," said Brad Clark, campaign director for One Iowa, a gay rights group.
Appealing the decision to a higher court isn´t an option, said Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, who represented the defense in the case.
"It´s a decision on state law grounds based on the Iowa Constitution, so this is as far as we go," Mr. Sarcone said. "The court made its decision, and we follow the law. In 21 days, same-sex couples can marry in Iowa."