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Iowa weighs ban on gay marriage

November 27, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Huffstutter is a Times staff writer.

FORT WAYNE, IND. — The national fight over same-sex marriage is coming to a peak in Iowa, where the state's highest court will hear arguments next month over whether the state's ban on gay unions is unconstitutional.

The debate over the future of Iowa's Defense of Marriage Act, a decade-old law that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, comes after a ruling by a lower court judge last year.

Iowa District Court for Polk County Judge Robert Hanson ruled in August 2007 that the act violated the state constitutional rights of equal protection and due process. The ruling stood for less than 24 hours before a Polk County attorney filed an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.

But in the nearly nine business hours that same-sex marriage was legal in the Hawkeye State, dozens of couples applied for licenses. Only one couple -- a pair of Iowa State University undergraduates -- was able to move fast enough to obtain a license and rush through a ceremony before the stay was enacted.

Now, both national advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage say they will closely monitor the Dec. 9 hearing in Des Moines. Both sides say they wonder whether the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California, which banned gay marriage, will influence the outcome in Iowa, and whether the issue of same-sex unions will return to the forefront as state legislatures return to session early next year.

More than half of the country's states have a law that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And after the Connecticut Supreme Court invalidated that state's ban on same-sex marriages last month, there are now two states -- including Massachusetts -- where marriage licenses can be legally issued to gay couples.

California used to be in that category. In May, the state Supreme Court overturned the state's gay marriage ban. But after California voters passed Proposition 8 this month, same-sex marriage was banned once again and the fate of thousands of same-sex unions was thrown into doubt.

Last week, California's highest court agreed to review legal challenges to the proposition.

Given that two state Supreme Courts are likely to weigh in on the subject next year, and that many state legislatures were in recess during California's fight over the matter, "I think it's highly likely that lawmakers across the country will be looking to get something on the ballot in 2009," said Christine Nelson, a policy analyst who focuses on same-sex marriage and family law for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Camilla Taylor, lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the case appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, said it was not about issues of faith.

"All we're talking about is government-issued marriage licenses," said Taylor, who works for Lambda Legal. The national gay rights organization filed a lawsuit in 2005 on behalf of six same-sex Iowa couples; it was later amended to include three children whose parents are plaintiffs.

"There comes a point when you can't tell people to hold off on getting married any longer," Taylor said. "We felt the time was right, and that Iowans would give us a fair hearing."

But Bryan English, a spokesman for the Iowa Family Policy Center, which opposes same-sex marriage, said: "Iowa marriage law is settled, simple and overwhelmingly supported by the people of Iowa. We're just hopeful the Supreme Court will uphold the law."

In Iowa, officials with the Polk County attorney's office declined to comment on the impending Supreme Court debate.

Until a final ruling is issued, Sean Fritz and Tim McQuillan won't know how long their marriage will remain legally recognized in Iowa.

On the morning of Aug. 31, 2007, the two college students filled out the paperwork for a marriage license in Polk County, paid $5 to waive the normal three-day waiting period and found a judge to sign the waiver form.

A pastor at the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines agreed to hold a quickly organized wedding on his front lawn, where it was witnessed by family and more than a dozen reporters.

Less than an hour after the couple received their marriage license, Hanson placed a hold on his ruling, pending the appeal.

That sort of rushed nuptial didn't appeal to either Jen BarbouRoske, 38, or her partner of more than 18 years, Dawn BarbouRoske. The couple -- plaintiffs in the case going before the Iowa Supreme Court -- has long wanted to get married in their hometown of Iowa City, for themselves and their two daughters.

" 'Marriage' describes the relationship Dawn and I have," said Jen, a nursing supervisor. Besides, she added, "it seems like a silly thing to have to explain to your kids: 'Oh, these are the rights we don't have.' "

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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