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Iowa Supreme CourtIowa Court Voids Gay Marriage Ban.

Iowa became the first state in the Midwest to approve same-sex marriage on Friday, after the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously decided that a 1998 law limiting marriage to a man and a woman was unconstitutional.

The decision was the culmination of a four-year legal battle that began with a suit filed on behalf of six same-sex couples in the lower courts.

The Supreme Court said same-sex marriages could begin in Iowa in as soon as 21 days, making Iowa only the third state in the nation, along with Massachusetts and Connecticut, to legalize gay marriage. While the same-sex marriage debate has played out on both coasts, the Midwest — where no states had permitted same-sex marriage — was seen as entirely different. In the past, at least six states in the Midwest were among those around the country that adopted amendments to their state constitutions banning same-sex marriage.

“We have a constitutional duty to ensure equal protection of the law,” the Iowa justices wrote in their opinion. “If gay and lesbian people must submit to different treatment without an exceedingly persuasive justification, they are deprived of the benefits of the principle of equal protection upon which the rule of law is founded.”

“The concept of equal protection, is deeply rooted in our national and state history, but that history reveals this concept is often expressed far more easily than it is practiced,” the court wrote.

Iowa has enforced its constitution in a series of landmark court decisions, including those that struck down slavery (in 1839) and segregation (cases in 1868 and 1873), and upheld women’s rights by becoming the first state in the nation to allow a woman to practice law, in 1869.

In a hotel in Des Moines on Friday morning, several of the same-sex couples who were involved in the suit wept, teared up and embraced as they learned about the decision from their lawyers. “I’d like to introduce you to my fiancee,” said Kate Varnum, 34, reaching over to Trish Varnum. “Today I am proud to be a lifelong Iowan.”

“We are blessed to live in Iowa,” she added.

Opponents of same-sex marriage criticized the ruling.

“The decision made by the Iowa Supreme Court today to allow gay marriage in Iowa is disappointing on many levels," State Senator Paul McKinley, the Republican leader, said in a statement on The Des Moines Register’s Web site. "I believe marriage should only be between one man and one woman and I am confident the majority of Iowans want traditional marriage to be legally recognized in this state."

He added: "Though the court has made their decision, I believe every Iowan should have a voice on this matter and that is why the Iowa Legislature should immediately act to pass a Constitutional Amendment that protects traditional marriage, keeps it as a sacred bond only between one man and one woman and gives every Iowan a chance to have their say through a vote of the people."

Advocates of same-sex marriage said they did not believe opponents had any immediate way to overturn the decision. A constitutional amendment would require the state legislature to approve a ban on same-sex marriage in two consecutive sessions after which voters would have a chance to weigh in.

Iowa has no residency requirement for getting a marriage license, which some suggest may mean a flurry of people from other states.

Two states — Connecticut and Massachusetts — currently allow same-sex marriages. Several other states on the East coast allow civil unions, lawmakers in Vermont are considering gay marriage, and California allowed it until November’s election, when residents rejected the idea in a voter initiative.

A change in Iowa’s take on marriage, advocates for gay marriage said before Friday’s ruling, would signal a broader shift in public thinking, even in the nation’s more conservative middle. Opponents of same-sex marriage, meanwhile, had said any legal decision in support of same-sex marriage in Iowa would certainly trigger a prompt and sharp response among residents and, surely, state lawmakers.

In one part of the decision that focuses on religious opposition to same-sex marriage, the justices seemed to anticipate negative reactions, saying they considered the unspoken reason for the ban on same-sex marriages to be religiously motivated. The justices said marriage was a “civil contract” and should not affect religious doctrine or views.

“The only difference is civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law,” the justices wrote.

The legal case here began in 2005, when six same-sex couples filed suit against the county recorder here in Polk County because he would not accept their marriage license applications.

Two years later, a local judge here, Robert B. Hanson, ruled in that case that a state law defining marriage as only between a man and woman was unconstitutional. The ruling, in 2007, set off a flurry of same-sex couples from all over the state, racing for the courthouse in Polk County.

The rush lasted less than a day in August of 2007. Although Judge Hanson had ruled against the state law, he quickly decided to delay any additional granting of licenses, saying that the Iowa Supreme Court should have an opportunity to weigh in first. In the end, about 20 couples applied before the stay was issued. Just one couple, Timothy McQuillan, then 21, and Sean Fritz, 24, managed to obtain their license and also to marry.

Maura Strassberg, a professor of law at Drake University, married her partner in Massachusetts last year, but was overjoyed to learn that her status will be legal in three weeks in Iowa.

After a quick review of the 69-page decision, Ms. Strassberg said she was not surprised with the outcome, but only how it was rendered. “What is really stunning is that it’s unanimous,” she said. “It’s a very bold, confident opinion. It affirms a certain notion of what Iowa is and what Iowa means.”

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