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Iowa gay marriage

Kathryn Varnum (left) and Trish Hyde, plaintiffs in the case that led to the historic ruling, are now free to marry in Iowa.

Same-Sex Marriage in the Heartland

Iowa becomes the first state in the Midwest to extend the right to marry to gays and lesbians.

BY Jessica Pupovac

Rallies and celebrations are being planned throughout Iowa to celebrate a historic court decision approving same-sex marriage.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruling, announced April 3rd, overturns a 1998 Iowa law limiting marriage to a man and a woman. It will make Iowa the first state in the Midwest–and the third in the United States–to allow same-sex marriage. According to the decision, county recorders can start issuing marriage licenses on April 24.

“Today’s ruling is an historic victory for fairness and equality,” said Carolyn Jenison, Executive Director of One Iowa, the state’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization.

“Marriage and commitment are important values in our family and when we marry we’ll be able to show our children just what that means,” said Chuck Swaggerty, a plaintiff in Varnum v. Brien, the case that led to the historic ruling.

Varnum v. Brien was filed in 2005 against Polk County, Iowa, where six same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses, and were denied. The suit argued that the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples violates equal protection and due process guarantees in the Iowa Constitution. In August 2007, a lower court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered Polk County to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Polk County appealed the ruling and the case went before the state Supreme Court. Closing arguments were heard in December.

Today’s decision upheld that ruling and drew parallels between this and others cases in which Iowa law has led the nation.

“Our responsibility,” reads the court’s decision, “is to protect constitutional rights of individuals from legislative enactments that have denied those rights, even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, were at one time unimagined, or challenge a deeply ingrained practice or law viewed to be impervious to the passage of time.”

Camilla Taylor, Senior Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal, a New York-based firm that litigated on behalf of the plaintiffs, said the court’s ruling marks another “proud day” of Iowa’s history of protecting individual rights.

“Today’s victory is a testament to the strength of love, hope and courage–our clients have shown an abundance of all three for many years and now. At long last they will be able to marry.”

Those plaintiffs include retired schoolteachers who were fearful of how the medical establishment would view their union in their old age; young parents who say their children have experienced discrimination at school because of their unconventional family structure; a lower-income couple who say they can’t afford individual healthcare plans; and two couples who say they were denied bereavement leave, normally granted to spouses, when one of their partner’s parents died. All of the six couples say they want the responsibilities and protections–for themselves and their families–that only marriage can guarantee.

One of the couples, Kate Varnum and Trish Hyde Varnum, held a commitment ceremony in 2004 but said they didn’t want to travel out of state to marry.

“We’ve always said if it would become legal in Iowa, we would pursue that,” said Varnum. “Iowa is our home and we want to be married in our home state. This is where we live. We don’t live in Massachusetts; we don’t live in Canada. Our day-to-day lives are here in Iowa, and being able to be treated fairly is so important.”

Varnum said her father, who passed away last summer, said at their commitment ceremony that, “in another time and another place, he would have called Trish his daughter-in-law, but at this time and this place, he would call her his daughter-in-love.”

Today’s ruling makes Iowa the third state in the country–following Connecticut and Massachusetts–to recognize same-sex marriage. (Another five states offer civil unions or legally protected domestic partnerships to same-sex couples.)

Justin Uebelhor, spokesperson for One Iowa, the leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization in the state, says he has been fielding calls from around the nation from people eager to celebrate Iowa’s victory, and learn from it.

“There is a saying, ‘As Iowa goes, so goes the country,’” he says. “A lot of people in the movement feel that same rule could apply as far as gay and lesbian rights are concerned throughout the nation. It’s a real exciting time here in the heartland and here in the Midwest.”

Jessica Pupovac is an In These Times contributing editor and a Chicago-based freelance reporter.

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