Varnum decision turns 5


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According to Kate Varnum, married life is the best kind of boring.

She spends her time studying and tending to her 2 ½-year-old son, Alex. The couple’s most recent undertaking is trying to teach their only child to feed Maggie, their mixed-breed rescue dog that he affectionately calls “Mackie.”

Kate and Trish Varnum know they will eventually face a moment when the couple will explain to Alex the complex role they played in a case with their name permanently attached to it.

Kate Varnum imagines herself starting the conversation with Alex describing a time when his parents were not recognized as a married couple.

But that was five years ago.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the unanimous decision by the Iowa Supreme Court that the state’s limitation of marriage to heterosexual couples violated the equal protection clause of the state’s Constitution, effectively establishing legal same-sex marriage in Iowa.

The Iowa Department of Public Health estimates more than 6,000 couples have been married in Iowa since the ruling.

The case, Varnum v. Brien, also included Larry Hoch and David Twombley of Urbandale, Dawn and Jen BarbouRoske of Iowa City, Ingrid Olson and Reva Evans of Council Bluffs, Jason Morgan and Chuck Swaggerty of Sioux City, and Bill Musser and Otter Dreaming of Decorah, as plaintiff couples.

Prior to the decision, the Varnums knew they wanted to be married. They had a commitment ceremony in 2004 and said at the time they were “as married as they could be.”

As the issue of same-sex marriage filled discussion across the country, the Varnums said if the controversy came up legally in Iowa, they would sign petitions, distribute flyers, and do whatever they could to move the cause forward.

But they did not foresee what their involvement would entail.

The unanimous ruling in 2009 made Iowa the third state to recognize same-sex marriage legally. Currently, 17 states have legalized same-sex marriage, in addition to the District of Columbia.

Jen BarbouRoske said she felt they had a strong case prior to the ruling, but the unified court surprised her.

“All the arguments I heard didn’t hold any water for me,” BarbouRoske said. “I was surprised it was unanimous — one always dreams of that — but it’s like getting every number right in the lottery.”

Three weeks following the verdict, the Varnums went to the Linn County Recorder’s Office, a few family members in tow, to exercise their newfound right.

“That was the best $35 check we could have ever written,” Varnum said.

Morgan and Swaggerty married on April 27, 2009, the first day gay and lesbian couples could marry in the state.

“Even five years later, sometimes I look back, and I think we were a part of history,” Morgan said. “It was profound and we recognize that. It’s exciting.”

But rough times were ahead.

One year later after the ruling, various organizations called for the ousting of three judges who took part in the unanimous decision. In 2010, Iowans voted “no” to retain three justices who voted in the unanimous decision.

Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, Justice David Baker, and Justice Michael Streit were dismissed from the court, igniting discussion across the nation regarding the issue of judicial retention.

But years later, Ternus stands firmly behind the votes she cast while on the court. She warns the Varnum decision sends a clear message to those serving as justices.

“When citizens vote against a judge based upon an unpopular decision the judge has made, voters are sending the message that the next time there is a controversial case, justices should look to public opinion polls and not to the Constitution or the Iowa Code to decide the case,” she said.

The justices have not looked back.

“I believe in it more strongly than ever,” Streit said. “Our decision was done right.”

Streit said immediately following the Varnum decision, opposition began classifying the court as an activist court, a term claiming the judges had a political agenda.

“That’s a label people apply to decisions they don’t like,” Streit said. “Iowans should be proud of what the court did. History has played itself out strongly.”

When Justice David Wiggins was up for retention two years later in 2012, some feared he would face the same fate as his colleagues.

But the voters kept Wiggins on the court, with 55 percent voting “yes” to retain the justice — a decision the Varnums said allowed Iowans to move on with its decision, shifting the case from history in the making to simply, history.

“At that point, I think Iowans had moved on,” Kate Varnum said.

Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa associate professor of political science, agreed.

“What I’ve said is there are always going to be people who disagree with the notion, but the extent in which they were willing to fight against it has dwindled,” he said.

Matty Smith, the communications director for One Iowa — the largest LGBT organization in the state — said the organization is now focusing on other issues, including healthcare for the aging LGBT population and HIV criminalization laws in Iowa.

The couple spend their weekends seeking out relatives and eating family dinners when they are not speaking to college groups about the differences in Iowa before and after the decision, focusing on legal changes as opposed to cultural ones.

“We have a pretty average life,” she said. “I like saying that.”

The plaintiff couples will reunite complete for the first time since the decision at a gala on Saturday.

And five years down the road, the Varnums simply see themselves parenting a 7-year-old child, a feat requiring stamina all its own.

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