Iowa is a state known for its fair-minded constituents who do not tend to sway towards one political party more than the other. Many were surprised that a Midwestern state beat out several coastal—and generally, more liberal—states in legalizing gay marriage but the unique political situation and good timing on the part of Lambda Legal made it a relatively swift and quiet decision.
The case of Iowa legalizing gay marriage was also made famous by the nineteen-year-old Zach Wahls and the speech he made in front of an Iowa legislative panel; the video later went viral on the internet and turned him into a temporary internet star. The all-around American is an engineering student, small business-owner, Eagle Scout and was raised by two mothers. He was motivated by the legal battle ensuing in his native Iowa but also by the (at the time) recent suicides of several LGBTQ teenagers. Whether he changed the minds of legislators cannot really be determined but, he did at least contradict the argument that same-sex couples are incapable of raising “normal” children. He closed his defense of same-sex marriage rights and the ability of same-sex couples to be good, successful parents by saying “the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on the content of my character.” He may even continue to be an activist as he works diligently on a new book about his life as the son of a lesbian couple.
The Legal Process
The case of Varnum v. Brien started with six couples who, with the help of Lambda Legal, sued Recorder of Deeds, Timothy Brien for not granting them marriage licenses. In the lower court’s decision, the right of same-sex couples to marry was compared to related historical precedents that struck down slavery, segregation and recognized women’s rights. This court’s decision was then sent to the state’s Supreme Court. The state’s Supreme Court made a unanimous decision that the state law limiting marriage to one man and one woman was unconstitutional. “We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective,” the Supreme Court wrote.
This made Iowa the third state to allow same-sex marriages; both chambers were Democrat-led at the time.
Citizens seemed rather surprised by the decision and opponents articulated intentions to oppose the law despite being unsure of how to do so. The only clear way (at the moment) to move forward with opposition would be via an amendment to the state Constitution which would take about two years, minimum. However, the defending attorney, John Sarcone, said his office will not ask for the case to be reconsidered.
What the Decision Means
The law itself is pretty standard compared to other state’s gay marriage laws. Residency is not a criterion for obtaining marriage licenses in Iowa so the state will likely become a hub for gay couples across the region to marry. Churches and religious groups and organizations are free to decide who they marry and civil unions seem to be left out of the legal writing entirely.
- Can same-sex couples marry in the state of Iowa? Yes.
- Can religious organizations deny services to same-sex couples who wish to marry? Yes.