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  • Sasha Issenberg

April 3, 2009: Iowa court asserts gays can marry


The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that state law limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples unfairly excludes "disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution."

In late 2005, attorneys in the Chicago office of Lambda Legal had sued Polk County recorder Timothy Brien on behalf of six Des Moines-area same-sex couples. They had all requested marriage licenses over the course of several months, and were rejected by Brien’s office, citing a 1998 law specifying in the state’s family that “only a marriage between a male and a female is valid.” As cases moved through state courts in California, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the Iowa litigation received little coverage beyond the state’s borders.

In 2007, a county judge ruled on summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, overturning the 1998 law as unconstitutional. Judge Robert Hanson’s order took effect immediately, unleashing a stampede among same-sex couples newly eligible to marry in Polk County. (Only one, a pair of male Iowa State University undergraduates who had met on Facebook, appeared to have successfully registered their marriage during that brief window by securing a court waiver to the standard three-day waiting period.) Once Brien had expressed his intent to appeal his loss to the Iowa Supreme Court, Hanson imposed a stay, halting the marriages; the court heard oral arguments in December 2008.

On April 3, 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court returned with its decision. The seven justices on the court had voted unanimously to overturn the state’s prohibition, ruling that the discrimination violated the equal-protection guarantees of the Iowa Constitution. (The rationales put forward by government lawyers to justify the statute would not even pass muster under the lowest possible level of scrutiny, the justices determined.) Iowa became the fourth state in which a right for same-sex couples to marry was found in the state constitution, and the first not on one of the country’s coasts.

Behind-the-scenes politicking by both local activists and national gay donors had helped to convince state officials to stand behind the ruling. The day the decision was issued in Varnum v. Brien, Democratic leaders of the state house and senate issued a joint statement accepting it. Days later Governor Chet Culver announced he, too, would resist any efforts to pass a constitutional amendment that would effectively override the decision.

Opponents of the decision sought recourse elsewhere. Three of the justices who voted with the unanimous majority would be up for retention votes the following November, including Chief Justice Marsha Ternus. The retention votes, held every eight years while rarely drawing any contest or public attention, became the forum in which same-sex marriage opponents sought vengeance on those they considered responsible for Varnum.


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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