The Iowa Supreme Court this morning unanimously upheld gays' right to marry.
"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 a summary of their decision.
The court rules that gay marriage would be legal in three weeks, starting April 24.
The court affirmed a Polk County District Court decision that would allow six gay couples to marry.
The ruling is viewed as a victory for the gay rights movement in Iowa and elsewhere, and a setback for social conservatives who wanted to protect traditional families.
The decision makes Iowa the first Midwestern state, and the fourth nationwide, to allow same-sex marriages. Lawyers for Lambda Legal, a gay rights group that financed the court battle and represented the couples, had hoped to use a court victory to demonstrate acceptance of same-sex marriage in heartland America.
The Iowa Supreme Court's Web site was deluged with more than 350,000 visitors this morning, in anticipation of the ruling, a Judicial Branch spokesman said this morning.
Steve Davis, a court spokesman, said administrators added extra computer servers to handle the expected increase in Web traffic. But "this is unprecedented," Davis said.
Richard Socarides, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton on gay civil rights, said today's decision could set the stage for other states. Socarides was was a senior political assistant for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin in the early 1990s.
"I think it's significant because Iowa is considered a Midwest sate in the mainstream of American thought," Socarides said. "Unlike states on the coasts, there's nothing more American than Iowa. As they say during the presidential caucuses, 'As Iowa goes, so goes the nation.'"
Democratic Sen. Bill Dotzler of Waterloo said he hopes people treat each other with respect today.
"Everyone just needs to remain calm," he said. "We need to analyze the decision.
By giving a unanimous decision it seems to me the court really thinks it's an issue of rights. It will be up to the legislature to look at their ruling and see how we're going to proceed."
"Iowa loses," said Republican Sen. David Johnson of Ocheyedan. "There have been attempts in the past few years to allow Iowans to weigh in on this issue through our constitutional amendment process and it's been blocked by majority party leadership. That's why Iowa loses."
Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, e-mailed his response to reporters:
"The decision released this morning by Supreme Court addresses a complicated and emotional issue, one on which Iowans have strong views and opinions on both sides. The next responsible step is to thoroughly review this decision, which I am doing with my legal counsel and the attorney general, before reacting to what it means for Iowa."
Senate Republican Leader Paul McKinley (R-Chariton) issued the following statement this morning in response to the Iowa Supreme Court's decision to allow gay marriage in Iowa:
"The decision made by the Iowa Supreme Court today to allow gay marriage in Iowa is disappointing on many levels. I believe marriage should only be between one man and one woman and I am confident the majority of Iowans want traditional marriage to be legally recognized in this state. Though the court has made their decision, I believe every Iowan should have a voice on this matter and that is why the Iowa Legislature should immediately act to pass a Constitutional Amendment that protects traditional marriage, keeps it as a sacred bond only between one man and one woman and gives every Iowan a chance to have their say through a vote of the people."
"I'm off the wall," said Democratic Sen. Matt McCoy of Des Moines, who is openly gay. "I'm very pleased to be an Iowan."
Then, as he saw a stream of grim-faced activists from the Supreme Court passing through security at the Iowa Capitol, he said: "The God squad's coming in the door now."
A Des Moines couple was waiting at the Polk County Recorder's Office to await the ruling.
Shelley Wolfe, 38, and Melisa Keeton, 31, who is 21 weeks pregnant, had gone through a commitment ceremony two years ago. Their marriage certificate was among the 26 that were put on hold when Hanson delayed the matter.
When the cell phone call came shortly after 8:30 a.m., Keeton said: "We're going to make it legal."
The women planned to call their pastor and have him meet them at the courthouse to request a waiver of the three-day waiting period so that can be wed today.
Lobbying began immediately for lawmakers to launch the long process of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
No such legislation will be approved this session in the Iowa Senate, McCoy said. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal won't allow it, he said.
Such an amendment requires the votes of a simple majority in both the Iowa House and Iowa Senate in two consecutive sessions, followed by a passing vote of the people of Iowa.
IN THE CROWD
Diane Thacker's eyes filled with tears as the words were read aloud on the north side of the Iowa Judicial Building.
"Sadness," she whisper when asked for her reaction. "But I'm prayerful and hopeful that God's word will stand."
Thacker of Des Moines said she went to the site of the announcement on Friday morning, "...because I believe in the marriage vow. I can't see it any other way."
Craig Overton's jaw dropped when he heard the news. He's opposed to same-sex
marriage, he said. Overton, of Pleasant Hill, had been carrying signs before the result was known. He was stunned to hear the news; his arm holding the signs dropped until the signs were resting on the sidewalk.
"I don't want this taught in schools," Overton said. "Animals don't do that. I don't like it. I have small children, and I just don't think this is right. I think the people ought to be allowed to vote on this instead of letting just a few people make all the rules."
IN THE LEGISLATURE
Opponents have long argued that allowing gay marriage would erode the institution. Some Iowa lawmakers, mostly Republicans, attempted last year to launch a constitutional amendment to specifically prohibit same-sex marriage.
Such a change would require approval in consecutive legislative sessions and a public vote, which means a ban would could not be put in place until at least 2012 unless lawmakers take up the issue in the next few weeks.
"If you'll remember when we proposed the Iowa marriage amendment, the Democrats' excuse for not taking it up was that it was in the hands of the Iowa Supreme Court," Senate Republican leader Paul McKinley of Chariton said Friday. "It was implied that should they find against traditional marriage, that the Legislature would handle that. I would certainly hope they'll keep their promise."
Until today, Iowa law said marriage could only be between one man and one woman.
The case, Varnum vs. Brien, involves six same-sex Iowa couples who sued Polk County Recorder Timothy Brien in 2005 after his office denied them marriage licenses. Polk County District Judge Robert Hanson sided with the couples last year but then suspended his decision pending a high court ruling.
In Dec. 10 arguments to the high court, Assistant Polk County Attorney Roger Kuhle said Hanson erred in his ruling, which declared the 1998 Iowa Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and threw out several expert witnesses that gay marriage opponents had hoped to use at the trial. Hanson ruled that the witnesses did not qualify as experts on issues relevant to the case.
Brien, the Polk County recorder, rejected the marriage license requests because he "has no say in this law," Kuhle said. "He can no more give these plaintiffs a license than he could give a license to a man and three women," he added.
Kuhle argued that same-sex marriage could loosen the definition of marriage to include polygamy. Future generations might discard the institution if they come to believe that opposite-sex parents are not necessary, he argued.
A ruling favorable to gay marriage also could hurt children, who are best raised by a mother and father, he said.
"One could easily argue, and we do, that fostering same-sex marriage will harm the institution of marriage as we know it," Kuhle said. "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."
Kuhle said state support for same-sex marriage would teach future generations that marriage is no longer about procreation despite thousands of years of history.
Nor does the case belong in the courts, Kuhle said. The debate should fall to the Legislature.