DES MOINES — While the same-sex marriage debate has played out on both coasts, the Midwest was seen as entirely different.
That changed Friday when Iowa's Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in a unanimous and emphatic decision that makes Iowa the third state, and the first in the nation's heartland, to allow same-sex couples to wed.
Iowa now joins only Massachusetts and Connecticut in permitting same-sex marriage. For six months last year, California's high court allowed gay marriage before voters banned it in November.
The Iowa attorney general said gay and lesbian couples can seek marriage licenses starting April 24, once the ruling is considered final.
In the past, at least six Midwest states have joined those around the country that adopted amendments to state constitutions banning same-sex marriage. Iowa's decision Friday 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.
"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."
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, several of the same-sex couples who were involved in the suit wept 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.
There did not appear to be any immediate way for opponents to overturn the decision. The county attorney who defended the law said he would not seek a rehearing. A constitutional amendment could take years.
Bryan English, spokesman for the Iowa Family Policy Center, which opposes gay marriage, said many Iowans are disappointed with the ruling and do not want courts to decide the issue. "I would say the mood is one of mourning right now in a lot of ways." He said the group immediately began lobbying legislators "to let the people of Iowa vote" on a constitutional amendment.
John Logan, a sociology professor at Brown University, said Iowa's status as a largely rural, Midwest state could enforce an argument that gay marriage is no longer a fringe issue. "When it was only California and Massachusetts, it could be perceived as extremism on the coasts and not related to core American values."
Iowa has no residency requirement for getting a marriage license, which some suggest may mean a flurry of people coming from other states.