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Same-sex marriage decision adds to Iowa’s history of progressiveness

BY ADAM SULLIVAN | APRIL 06, 2009 7:42 AM

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Gays, lesbians, and supporters from around the country are shifting their sights to this middle-of-the-road farming state.

Riding the high from last week’s victory, same-sex marriage proponents remain cautiously optimistic that momentum from Iowa will carry their cause to other states and, eventually, to the federal level.

“It’s a long struggle. Civil rights — you have your ups and downs, wins and losses. But I’m going to tell you today that the wins feel a hell of a lot better,” Ken Upton, one of the lawyers in last week’s same-sex marriage case, told a roaring, dancing, flag-waving crowd of approximately 1,000 at the Pentacrest last week. Upton works for Lambda Legal, a New York-based civil-right organization that focuses on homosexual and transgender issues.

“We can do it. So can everybody else,” said Sherri Hildebrand, a UI Ph.D. student. She attended the rally wielding a sign that read “IOWA: SMALL TOWN, BIG HISTORY” in rainbow letters.

Dustin Wagner, a UI alumnus who helped organize the rally, said he has been active in campaigning for gay rights and was excited to see his work pay off.

“It’s just kind of something I’ve been trying to be active in helping this process along, and it makes me really happy to hear this,” he said.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously April 3 that a law banning same-sex marriage in Iowa is unconstitutional in Varnum v. Brien, a case in which six same-sex couples were initially denied marriage licenses from the Polk County recorder.

Within weeks, Iowa will join the likes of Connecticut and Massachusetts as the only U.S. states to allow same-sex couples to marry.

“We have a constitutional duty to ensure equal protection of the law,” the Supreme Court stated in a summary of the ruling. “If gay and lesbian people must submit to different treatment without an exceedingly persuasive justification, they are deprived from the benefits of the principle of equal protection upon which the rule of law is founded.”

Some view Iowa as an unlikely candidate to put such a progressive measure in place.

“Iowa is judged as a middle-of-the-road state. We’re neither red nor blue,” said Janelle Rettig, an Iowa City resident who identifies herself as a lesbian. “So for a moderate state to do this — this is enormous.”

But this isn’t the first time Iowa has been thrust into the spotlight of the civil-rights discussion.

During celebrations over the weekend, gay-rights activists noted Iowa has a long history of being a civil-rights trendsetter.

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy issued a statement last week outlining some of Iowa’s civil-rights accomplishments, including an 1868 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that outlawed “separate but equal” schools 85 years before the U.S. Supreme Court did so.

“If you read our Constitution and our history, we have always stood at the forefront of civil rights,” Rettig said. “It’s enormous, but it isn’t unexpected. We have done this time and time again.”

Rettig and wife Robin Butler celebrated their “25th anniversary of being in love” last week after getting married in Canada in 2001. However, they said, they’re ecstatic to soon have the opportunity to be legally recognized in Iowa.

UI law Professor Ann Estin said recognizing couples in Iowa such as Rettig and Butler could come as a shock to outsiders.

“I think a lot of people around the country will be surprised to see this ruling in Iowa,” Estin said.

“But the truth is, Iowa has a long history of being progressive on civil-rights issues. Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised.”

While Iowa’s gay-marriage precedent is likely to have social weight, Estin said, legally, the ruling might not be so heavy.

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling was based on equal-protection language in the Iowa Constitution.

Activists in states that don’t have similar provisions may be hard-pressed to prove traditional marriage laws are unconstitutional.

“In many other states, including our neighbors in the Heartland, there is state constitutional language in place to limit marriage to one man and one woman,” she said. “In those states, a Supreme Court can’t make a ruling like this ruling. The Supreme Court [in Iowa] is using that equality language literally.”

Mike Manno, a Des Moines-area lawyer and law professor at Upper Iowa University, has spoken out against the court ruling, saying the decision should have been left in the hands of the public.
Despite being an opponent of the ruling, he admitted the court’s conviction could have an effect on other states.

“I think the fact this was a unanimous decision coming from Iowa will probably be persuasive to a lot of other courts,” he said. “The fact that the Iowa Supreme Court has said this doesn’t necessarily mean other courts will do the same thing, but it will be fairly persuasive to some judges who may be sitting on the fence on this.”


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