Des Moines, Iowa The state Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage has created something unprecedented over the past year: Iowa as a wedding destination.
That April 3, 2009, decision, followed about three weeks later by the issuing of marriage licenses, led to 1,783 same-sex weddings by year’s end. Of those, 1,044 of the couples came from outside the state.
The ruling drew people like Judith Weir and Olly Staneslow of St. Paul, Minn., who boarded a bus with eight other gay couples last August and made the 250-mile drive to marry in a Des Moines church.
“It felt like a huge party all the way,” Weir said.
The couple of 17 years said they knew their marriage would have no legal standing back home but agreed it would have personal meaning.
“I felt relieved,” Staneslow said. “We know it’s not legal (in Minnesota) yet, but we’ve done everything we absolutely could.”
They were among 100 Minnesota same-sex couples who wed last year in Iowa, ranking the state second among those sending gay couples there to marry. Illinois topped the list at 172.
The top five states were from the Midwest, but people also came from Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas.
Iowa’s new status as a marriage destination prompted Beau Fodor to quit his job as a Salvation Army event planner and start a business organizing gay weddings. He’s worked with 15 couples so far, all from other states.
“I just knew it would be a good fit for me,” he said.
The Iowa Supreme Court’s decision came in a case pushed by the gay-rights group Lambda Legal. The justices upheld an August 2007 decision that found a state law limiting marriage to a man and a woman violates constitutional equal-protection rights.
Lambda Legal attorney Camilla Taylor said a marriage license enables Iowa same-sex couples to make medical decisions for one another, file state taxes together and have the right to be on the same insurance policy.
The difference between Iowa and other states is enough to make Mike Yowell uneasy when he leaves his Council Bluffs home each day for his job in Omaha, Neb. Yowell and partner Hersh Rodasky have been together for 29 years and wed April 30.
Yowell said he thinks about the rights he leaves behind with each morning commute across the Missouri River.
He acknowledges he’s sensitive about those rights. When he took Rodasky to an Iowa hospital a few years ago with chest pains, a nurse initially refused to let him into Rodasky’s room because he wasn’t considered a relative. Hospital supervisors relented when both men complained.
“Now I don’t have to worry about that,” Yowell said.
Today, the men will mark the court ruling’s anniversary by joining same-sex couples from Council Bluffs and Omaha. They will meet at the midpoint of a pedestrian bridge over the Missouri River, linking Iowa and Nebraska.
Other events are planned to mark the year since the court’s ruling, but some say what has struck them most has been how quickly gay marriage has gone from extraordinary to mundane.
“You kind of want to say it was huge,” said Carolyn Jenison, executive director for One Iowa, a gay and lesbian advocacy group. “I remember getting up Saturday, April 4, and walking down the street and nothing was different. People have continued to do what they’ve always done.”
Pockets of resistance
For many, though, the court’s ruling remains unsettling.
Republican lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to place a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage before voters. All three GOP candidates for governor have spoken out strongly against the court’s decision.
Candidate Bob Vander Plaats has made same-sex marriage one of his campaign’s key issues, promising that as governor he would immediately issue an order blocking enforcement of the ruling. Democrats and some Republicans have said such a move would be illegal.
“The primary issue is the Supreme Court has stepped outside of its jurisdiction,” Vander Plaats said. “I’m just trying to be a referee on the court and call the proverbial time out when someone steps out of bounds.”
The Iowa Christian Alliance is focusing its efforts against the ruling on the Legislature.
Norm Pawlewski, the group’s lobbyist, acknowledged it would be at least 2014 before the issue could go before voters because of rules for amending the state constitution. Democrats control both chambers and have refused to allow a vote on a referendum, which would need to be approved by two consecutive general assemblies.
“We’re talking three or four years at least,” Pawlewski said. “A lot will depend on what happens in November, whether the Republicans take over at least one of the houses.”
Jason Swaggerty-Morgan, a plaintiff from Sioux City in the lawsuit leading to the court’s decision, says he’s not worried about the law being overturned. He married Chuck Swaggerty-Morgan last April.
“I have full faith that the people in Iowa believe in equality,” he said.