On Friday, April 3, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Iowa’s marriage law—which provided only for heterosexual marriages—violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause, effectively paving the way for same-sex couples in the state to wed.

The decision upheld a 2007 district court ruling in a case that pitted the Polk County Registrar against six same-sex couples who claimed that Iowa Code section 595.2 was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court ruled that the county’s arguments in favor of the ban—that it promoted procreation and encouraged stability in opposite-sex relationships, among other arguments—were either not furthered by the law or did not constitute a sufficient government interest. That the law’s distinction based on sexual orientation did not substantially further a governmental interest made the law unconstitutional.

“Equal protection under the Iowa Constitution is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike,” the Court wrote. “Since territorial times, Iowa has given meaning to this constitutional provision, striking blows to slavery and segregation, and recognizing women’s rights. The court found the issue of same-sex marriage comes to it with the same importance as the landmark cases of the past.”

The Court’s decision invited considerable national attention as indicated, in part, by the more than 40 parties which filed amici curiae briefs in the case.

The response on campus was overwhelmingly positive. The online cyber forum GrinnellPlans was flooded with posts extolling the Court’s decision and expressing pride at living in Iowa.
“I think it’s cool to have it happen in a state where I’m currently living,” said Jon Richardson ’10, a co-Leader of the Stonewall Coalition. Following the decision, Richardson and friends ventured across campus with pride flags on full display. “As a gay person, any time you have your rights validated or the government vindicate what you have believed for a long time, it’s a very exciting thing, so that was really great.”

The decision in Iowa, which made it the third state in the country to allow same-sex marriages, was quickly followed by a similar event in Vermont. On Tuesday, April 7, the Vermont state legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto that struck down a law allowing for same-sex marriages.

The Vermont law was significant in that it was the first allowance of same-sex marriages at the hands of a legislature instead of a court. Court decisions have at times been criticized as undemocratic. Following the week’s events in Iowa and Vermont, there are now four states in which same-sex couples can wed; the other two are Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The Iowa case is likely to have far-reaching implications beyond its immediate impact of allowing same-sex marriages. In its opinion, the Court ruled that legal classifications based on sexual orientation constituted a “suspect classification,” in part because of the history of “invidious discrimination” against gay and lesbian people and the group’s comparatively limited political clout. Suspect classifications are generally subject to more stringent judicial review meaning that all future laws employing distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation will be less likely to pass muster.

The intermediate level of scrutiny applied by the court was the same typically used for gender distinctions. According to Harvard Law Professor Martha Field, the U.S. Supreme Court has thus far examined distinctions of sexual orientation only at the lowest levels of scrutiny which make it more difficult to overturn government decisions.

The opinion could also pave the way for similar decisions in other states as justices outside Iowa look to the decision for both legal guidance and political legitimacy.

“Rulings by state supreme courts on this issue are still so few in number that any court that next takes up this issue will undoubtedly look very closely at what the Iowa Supreme Court has done,” said University of Iowa Law Professor Todd Pettys. “The fact that the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision was unanimous will underscore the importance of the decision for other courts.”

Barry Matsumoto, also a Law Professor at University of Iowa, said the Court decision might also shape public opinion by legitimating the issue of same-sex marriage in the public consciousness. “The state Supreme Court [decision] will resolve in the state of Iowa thinking more about the propriety of banning same-sex marriage,” Matsumoto said, “and for those who oppose [it], perhaps changing their minds. It seems to be that we’ve been given a wonderful chance to think about this question and how we want to treat people in the state of Iowa.”
Political action on the issue even preceded the Court’s announcement. With the Court’s decision pending, legislators submitted two proposals in the House to change marriage laws in Iowa. On April 3, State Reps. Dolores Mertz D-Ottosen and Dwayne Alons R-Hull introduced a bill to amend the state constitution defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. That bill was in response to a proposal by State Sen. Matt McCoy D-Des Moines that same day seeking to make the state’s marriage laws gender neutral. Neither proposal is expected to make it out of committee in time for the current session.

Proposed amendments would likely not be passed until 2012, at the earliest. The amendment process for Iowa constitution is unusually long, requiring that a proposed amendment be passed by consecutive legislatures before being submitted to the people for a vote. Currently, the state democrats have a 56-44 majority in the House and 32-18 advantage in the Senate.

Republican leaders quickly expressed disappointment at the decision and frustration at supposed duplicity on the part of state democrats. State Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, R-Chariton rebuked democrats for obstructing efforts at initiating the amendment process, singling out Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal D-Council Bluffs who said Monday April 6 that he had no intention of taking up the amendment issue.

“Those democrats who indicated they believe marriage is between one man and one woman when this was being debated in previous years, they have not taken this up,” McKinley said. “Their excuse for not doing this earlier was we didn’t need to do it, we had a law, the Defense of Marriage Act. In the event the Supreme Court ruled otherwise, they promised they would bring this up. And now they’re refusing.”

McKinley was referring to the 1998 law defining marriage in the state as only between a man and a woman, a law that Gronstal voted for.

McKinley said that the discrepancy between past legislative action and the recent Court decision demanded resoluion by a vote of the people. “We have two branches of government, the legislative and the executive, saying one thing. We have seven justices saying a different thing,” McKinley said. “I believe we need to do what any reasonable person would expect and say let’s take it to the people of Iowa. The people of Iowa need to have a vote. It’s their turn, they’re the final arbiters and they should have a say.”

Members of the democratic leadership could not be reached in time for comment.

It’s unclear whether or not a later constitutional amendment would invalidate marriages performed in the interim, Pettys said.

Field, however, said the logistical issues of not recognizing the marriages could potentially compel other states to address the marriages in a way that validated them.
“My advice would be get married as soon as possible. They can’t possibly throw out the marriage. Places are going to have to think about people who are married in other places anyway,” Field said. “For one thing, you’d have to decide if they break up whether they have to get divorced or not. Or if they marry somebody else, whether they’re committing bigamy.”

Iowa marriage laws do not include a residency requirement which means that same-sex couples from other states may legally marry here.

Cheryl Fleener-Seymour, who works in the College’s Chaplain’s Office and helps manage wedding reservations at Herrick Chapel, said that office might expect an increased number of wedding inquiries in response to the recent court decision. She said the office had received some reservations in the last few days but that none of the callers have indicated whether they were responding directly to the ruling.

“Our language is set up so that it’s gender neutral,” Fleener-Seymour said “So when we send out our wedding packets, it doesn’t say ‘the bride and the groom,’ it says ‘the wedding couple.’”

Herrick Chapel isn’t the only way for couples to marry at the College. Randy Brush, husband of Loosehead RLC and Assistant Director of Residence Life Kim Hinds-Brush, became an ordained minister in June 2006 using an online service and said he was looking forward to potentially marrying same-sex couples among his friends.

“It was one of those things where I did it because we were sitting around talking about how ridiculous it was that you could get ordained online,” Brush said. “But over one of those things if they ever legalized gay marriage in Iowa it would be nice if I could do that for my friends but there was never anyone in particular.

“A lot of people on Plans have said ‘if I’m ever up for it, you’re the man.’ If someone asked me to, I’d be more than happy to,” he said.

In the meantime, while Richardson said that he was somewhat optimistic about what the ruling could mean for the future of same-sex marriage and gay rights, he would rather relish the moment. “I think it does have amazing consequences for the rest of the U.S. I think that one of the reasons that Vermont passed it right after this is because they felt like they had to jump on the bandwagon also,” he said.

“So I think there are a lot of ways in which it’s really good. But right now I prefer to just celebrate.”