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Same-sex marriage (SSM) in Iowa


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Why Iowa is special state for same-sex marriage (SSM):

  • The state culture is pro-equality: According Dennis Johnson, lawyer for Lambda Legal -- an organization devoted to equal treatment for persons of all sexual orientations -- Iowa has a long history of aggressively protecting individuals' civil rights in cases of discrimination based on race and gender. 1This makes Iowa a possible candidate to be the next state to approve same-sex marriage (SSM).

California and Vermont have a similar human rights record. Those states became the first in the U.S. to recognize same-sex relationships: California legalized domestic partnerships and Vermont legalized civil unions. Both states were the first to grant loving, committed same-sex couples state protections for themselves and for their children.

  • The state Constitution is difficult to change: In many other states, interested persons can collect a sufficient number of petition signatures and force the government to place a constitutional amendment on the next ballot. Iowa is not a referendum state. That is, the state constitution cannot be changed by direct action of its citizens. Since those opposed to SSM in the U.S. are in the majority and tend to be highly motivated to vote, citizens in many referendum states have been able to amend their constitutions to restrict marriage to remain a special privilege of one man and one woman. In reality, many of these referendums gone well beyond simply banning SSM. They have included stealth clauses intended to also strip away existing rights and protections from unmarried opposite-sex couples and their children.

    In Iowa, attempts to amend the constitution must be initiated by the legislature and passed by both the House and Senate during two consecutive General Assemblies before they can be submitted to the electorate for final approval or rejection.

    The most recent attempt to have the legislature initiate an amendment banning SSM failed in the Iowa House on 2008-MAR-04. All 46 Republicans voted in favor and all 50 Democrats voted against the motion. Four Democrats and one Republican were absent or did not vote. 2 A referendum cannot now be held until 2011.

  • Lack of residency requirement: Iowa law allows non-resident couples to come to the state and be married. If SSM becomes available in Iowa, same-sex couples from all over the U.S. may go to Iowa, get married, and return to their own state. They might ask that their marriages be recognized at home. If refused, they might launch lawsuits to obtain recognition and protection for themselves and their children. 3

Timeline of SSM activities:

  • 2003-NOV-14: Judge Jeff Neary granted a divorce to a lesbian couple in Northwest Iowa. This is significant because it implies recognition of their same-sex marriage.
  • 2005-JUN-17: the Iowa Supreme Court upheld Judge Neary's ruling, thereby confirming the courts' recognition of same-sex marriage.
  • Late 2005 and early 2006: Six same-sex couples attempted to obtain marriage licenses from Timothy J. Brien, Recorder for Polk County, IA. All of the couples met the age, consent, competency and degree of consanguinity requirements of the state marriage act. All were refused licenses solely because they are of the same gender. Lambda Legal sued on their behalf in Superior Court for permission to obtain marriage licenses and have their marriage registered. The case is Varnum v. Brien.
  • 2007-AUG-30: Polk County Judge Robert B. Hanson noted a conflict between Iowa's marriage law and two of the state Constitution's clauses: those guaranteeing equal protection and due process. Since the constitution takes precedence, he found for the plaintiffs and instructed the county to permit same-sex couples to marry. The following day, a rush of same-sex couples flooded the Polk County Courthouse to apply for marriage licenses. One couple was actually married and thereby gained about 400 state benefits that protect themselves and their children. Judge Hanson granted a stay of his own ruling later that day to prevent additional loving, committed same-sex couples from marrying.

The plaintiffs have been in loving committed relationships for 5, 5, 6, 9, 9, and 16 years. Two of the plaintiff couples have children; one plans to have children, and two couples are licensed foster parents and intend to adopt in the future.

Judge Hanson's ruling has since been appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, who will hear arguments on 2008-DEC-09.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. David Pitt, "Judge Strikes Down Iowa Gay Marriage Ban," Chicago Tribune, 2007-AUG-31, at:
  2. "Sequence No. 6," Iowa House, 2008-MAR-04, at:
  3. "Brief history of same-sex marriage from," at:

Site navigation: Home > Homosexuality > Same-sex marriage > Menu > Iowa > here

Copyright 2007 & 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2008-DEC-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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