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Iowa's top court brings gay marriage to America's heartland

The unanimous ruling held that the state's same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 2009

Laura Fefchak (r.) and Nancy Robinson (center) in Urbandale, Iowa reacted Friday to the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling that the state's same-sex marriage ban violates the constitutional rights of gay and lesbian couples.

David K. Purdy/AP

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Iowa's top court legalized same-sex marriage Friday, giving advocates a victory beyond the liberal coastal states into the more conservative American interior.

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The supreme court justices drew explicit parallels to civil rights struggles by blacks and women, holding that the state's ban on same-sex marriage was a violation of the equality promised in the Iowa constitution.

"If a simple showing that discrimination is traditional satisfies equal protection, previous successful equal protection challenges of invidious racial and gender classifications would have failed," the court said in its ruling.

This past week, legislators in both Vermont and New Hampshire have passed bills legalizing gay marriage, as did Sweden's parliament, making it the fifth European country to allow it.

Both sides of the same-sex marriage controversy can claim victories in various state courts. But this heartland ruling highlights the problems opponents have had making a secular case before courts of law, causing some to shift their focus more to defending religious protections.

"The strongest argument for traditional marriage has always been anchored in faith," says Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at California's Pepperdine University and an opponent of same-sex marriage. "The issue is one that affects every part of the country and it is a topic that requires the balancing of claims of equality and religious freedom," he adds.

He argues that legislatures need to carve out explicit religious exemptions. These would ensure that legal protections for gay equality do not eventually impact churches' tax benefits, hiring practices, and public activities. He and others have also mooted removing the state from marriage altogether.

Forty-three states have laws explicitly prohibiting such marriages, including 29 with constitutional amendments restricting marriage to one man and one woman.

In a New York Times oped last month, Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution and David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values suggested the federal government give civil union status to same-sex marriages and civil unions granted by states – so long as those states included strong religious conscience clauses.

While agreeing that religious exemptions are needed, leading same-sex marriage opponent Maggie Gallagher doesn't think recent losses in court spell the beginning of the end to the legal fight. While Iowa, California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts courts have ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, Maryland, New York, and Washington state have rejected it. California repealed the gay marriage ruling by voter initiative in November.

"Are we going to be losing masses of state courts? No," she says. But she says proponents seem to be gearing up for a bigger prize: "They are going after federal rights for same-sex marriage."

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