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Human Rights Campaign Hails Unanimous Iowa Supreme Court Decision as Part of
Growing Trend Towards Marriage Equality Across the Country
WASHINGTON – The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization, applauded  the Iowa state Supreme Court’s unanimous 7-0 decision today ruling that the equal protection provision of Iowa Constitution guarantees gay and lesbian couples the same right to marry as heterosexual couples.  As a result of the court’s decision in Varnum v. Brien, Iowa becomes the first state in the Midwest and the third in the nation to now recognize marriages for gay and lesbian couples. 
“This is a truly historic day for Iowa and a proud day for every American who believes in the promise of equal rights and fairness for all,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese.  “The Iowa Supreme Court did its job by recognizing that gay and lesbian couples who form committed relationships and loving families deserve the same level of respect afforded to heterosexual couples.  The unanimous court made forcefully clear that the state constitution guarantees the same rights and protections for all Iowans. This decision strengthens Iowa families and makes a strong statement for equality all across the nation.”
“We congratulate and commend Lambda Legal, the numerous organizations and individuals who briefed the Supreme Court, and, of course, the courageous plaintiff couples and their families who looked to the courts to vindicate their rights,” said Solmonese.  “We also thank One Iowa for their hard work across the state to ensure that gay and lesbian couples and their families receive the recognition that they rightfully deserve.” 
The ruling is similar to past Supreme Court decisions in Massachusetts, Connecticut and California that also found state constitutional violations where gay and lesbian couples were denied the right to marry.  (The California decision was affected by Proposition 8, a change to the state constitution approved by voters last November.  A legal challenge to Proposition 8 is pending.)
Speaking for the unanimous court, Justice Mark S. Cady wrote that “[w]e are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective.”  The court rejected the possibility that civil unions—or any institution other than civil marriage—could satisfy the guarantees of the state constitution. 
The Varnum case began in December 2005, when Lambda Legal filed suit in Iowa District Court on behalf of six gay and lesbian couples (later amended to include three of their children).  In August 2007, the Iowa District Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.  The District Court granted a stay of the decision pending appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.  

A growing number of states across the country are providing relationship recognition to gay and lesbian couples.  Two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, already permit gay and lesbian couples to marry under state law.  New York recognizes marriages by gay and lesbian couples legally entered into outside of the state.  In recent weeks state legislatures in New Hampshire and Vermont have passed bills that would recognize marriages by gay and lesbian couples, which could make them the first states to enact marriage equality legislatively. (The Vermont House of Representatives voted yesterday in support of marriage equality after the state Senate approved the bill last month.)

In addition to the three states that now provide for  marriage equality under state law, eight states plus Washington, D.C. have laws providing at least some form of state-level relationship recognition, short of marriage, for gay and lesbian couples. Five of these states—California, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, and Vermont—plus Washington, D.C. provide gay and lesbian couples with access to the state level benefits and responsibilities of marriage, through either civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Key results from the ruling:

  • Gay and lesbian couples in Iowa will soon be able to obtain civil marriage licenses and receive the same respect and protections afforded to all married couples under state law.  The decision becomes effective in as soon as 21 days unless the state files a petition for rehearing.
  • Churches and other religious institutions will not have to recognize or perform ceremonies for these civil marriages, as the court’s opinion expressly states: “A religious denomination can still define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and a marriage ceremony performed by a minister, priest, rabbi, or other person ordained or designated as a leader of the person’s religious faith does not lose its meaning as a sacrament or other religious institution.  The sanctity of all religious marriages celebrated in the future will have the same meaning as those celebrated in the past.  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 court’s decision does not entitle gay and lesbian couples in Iowa to receive the federal rights and benefits extended to married couples.  The so-called federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) discriminates against gay and lesbian married couples by denying them over 1,000 federal rights, benefits, and responsibilities including social security benefits, the ability to file a joint federal tax return, and the right to petition for a spouse to immigrate.  A lawsuit filed in federal court in Massachusetts last month challenges a portion of DOMA.
  • Other states may legally recognize the civil marriages of gay and lesbian couples performed in Iowa in the same way they recognize out-of-state marriages by heterosexual couples.

The Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Campaign Foundation signed onto an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief in the Varnum case to support and further explain the argument for extending civil marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples under the state constitution.  A number of civil rights organizations, elected officials, religious groups, historians, law professors, child advocates and others also either signed or filed briefs of their own in favor of extending civil marriage laws to gay and lesbian couples.

The Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. By inspiring and engaging all Americans, HRC strives to end discrimination against LGBT citizens and realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all.


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