Gay couples will likely be getting married soon in Iowa and activists on both sides of the issue claim the sight of same-sex unions in America’s heartland will spur other states to take action.
What is less clear is whether the action taken will result in legislation to legalize gay marriage or constitutional amendments to outlaw it.
Supporters and opponents of gay marriage said on Saturday they were energized by the Iowa Supreme Court’s forceful and unanimous ruling on Friday that a state law limiting marriage to a man and a woman violates the constitutional rights of equal protection.
The ruling opens the door for gays and lesbians to exchange vows in Iowa as soon as April 24.
“It really adds to momentum in favor of the freedom to marry already under way, but now going to a higher level,” said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based group working to win marriage equality nationwide.
Illinois state Representative Greg Harris agreed that the Iowa decision shows “the values of basic fairness are spreading from state to state.”
Harris, a Chicago Democrat who is gay, has sponsored a bill that would legalize civil unions in Illinois, giving gay couples many of the legal benefits of marriage. The bill passed out of committee last month and faces a vote on the House floor.
Illinois is one of 14 states that restricts marriage to one man and one woman.
Chris Sanders, president of the gay rights group Tennessee Equality Project, speculated that gay couples legally married in such states as Iowa will move to Southern states and fight to have their marriages recognized.
“This ruling will have no direct bearing on what is going on in Tennessee,” he said. “How it will contribute is a critical mass of states will move to support marriage equality and eventually the federal courts will have to take up this matter,” Sanders said.
Though the Iowa ruling points to a favorable trend, opposition to gay marriage is still formidable, said Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, a New York-based gay rights organization.
“There is certainly strong opposition, with 29 states amending their Constitution,” he said. “But this case will provide additional momentum and we can see the day where same-sex marriage is allowed throughout the United States. People are coming to understand that this is inevitable.”
Opponents reject the notion that legalizing gay marriage is inevitable. They said the Iowa ruling serves as a warning to other states that haven’t enacted constitutional amendments to preserve the status quo.
“This [ruling] will catapult all of those states forward in the marriage amendment process,” said Douglas Napier, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group based in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“I think they’re going to work hard to get it on their Constitution before another renegade court goes out and creates new law,” he said.
That’s exactly what Florida voters did in November, said John Stemberger, an Orlando attorney who led the Florida Family Policy Council in campaigning for the measure. Same-sex marriage was banned in Florida law even before the election, but Floridians voted to enshrine a definition of marriage in the state’s Constitution.
“It’s a classic example [of] why we in Florida amended our state Constitution — to protect it from judges who would not seek to appreciate their limited and restrained role as a jurist,” Stemberger said of the Iowa ruling.