In a unanimous opinion, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the state's ban on gay marriage "violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution."
"Consequently, the language in Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil marriage to a man and a woman must be stricken from the statute, and the remaining statutory language must be interpreted and applied in a manner allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage," the 69-page ruling concluded.
In 2005, Lambda Legal, a New York-based gay rights organization, sued on behalf of six gay and lesbian Iowa couples in Polk County who were denied marriage licenses. Some of their children are also listed as plaintiffs.
The case was appealed to the state Supreme Court in 2007, after Polk County District Court Judge Robert Hanson agreed with the plaintiffs and ruled that the ban was unconstitutional.
Hanson's ruling prompted nearly two dozen people to apply for marriage licenses in the county, Iowa's most populous and home to Des Moines. Only one couple, Sean and Tim McQuillan of Ames, managed to get married before Hanson stayed his decision the next day. Their marriage stands, but its validity could depend on whether the state's high court sides with the Polk County judge.
During oral arguments before the state Supreme Court in December, Des Moines lawyer Dennis Johnson argued the ban violated his clients' due process and equal protection rights.
"We are suggesting that everybody be able to participate equally in an institution that has existed since the beginning of this state," Johnson said during arguments.
Roger J. Kuhle, an assistant Polk County attorney, argued that the lower court's ruling for the plaintiffs violates the separation of powers and that the issue should be left to the Legislature.
"We are not here opposing the individual plaintiffs' sincerity. We are here because, in our view, the issue is one for the Legislature to decide as a matter of social policy," he told the seven-member court.
During oral arguments, Chief Justice Marsha Ternus explained that the high court would determine whether the district court erred by finding that the same-sex marriage ban violated the state constitution, and whether it erred by not allowing the county's expert witness testimony.
The timing of the ruling's release could be awkward for state lawmakers, who are on track to end the legislative session in coming weeks.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, told reporters that it's "exceedingly unlikely" the Legislature would deal with the gay marriage issue this year, regardless of the court's ruling.
"This is the final step in a lengthy legal proceedings," said Gronstal. "We're going to wait and see that decision and review it before we take any action."
Around the nation, only Massachusetts and Connecticut permit same-sex marriage. California, which briefly allowed gay marriage before a voter initiative in November repealed it, allows domestic partnerships.
New Jersey and New Hampshire also offer civil unions, which provide many of the same rights that come with marriage. New York recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, and legislators there and in New Jersey are weighing whether to offer marriage. A bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in Vermont is before the state House.