Iowa Supreme Court Hears Marriage Case

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The Iowa Supreme Court has heard oral argument in Varnum v. Brien, Lambda Legal's historic case filed on behalf of six same-sex couples seeking the right to marry, and their families. Varnum is the only marriage lawsuit now pending in any state. In a powerful argument, we urged the court to breathe life into the promise of equality guaranteed in the Iowa Constitution.

Kate and Trish Varnum.

Kate and Trish Varnum

One of the couples asking the Court to uphold their right to marry is Kate and Trish Varnum, who live in Cedar Rapids. Trish and Kate took the same last name two years ago, and the couple celebrated their partnership in a commitment ceremony in 2004. But these steps fall short of marriage. In an interview in the Des Moines Register (12.7.08), they said they still would like to marry to declare their love. "We hope that day comes sooner rather than later," Kate Varnum said. "I think Iowa has been ahead of the curve on civil rights. I'm proud to live here. I think Iowans are very fair minded."

The case was argued before the court by former Iowa Solicitor General and Lambda Legal co-counsel Dennis Johnson of Dorsey and Whitney in Des Moines, who called on the justices to make real for gay and lesbian couples the promise of equality in the Iowa Constitution as he read the words out loud:

All men and women are, by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights — among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.

Johnson ended by telling the story of Jen and Dawn BarbouRoske: When their daughter McKinley found out her mothers weren't married, she cried. And when they were looking for a preschool, one teacher actually told them that McKinley would not be allowed to talk about her family during "family week" because they were not married and not really a family. Johnson’s powerful retelling of their story demonstrated to the court the stigma that same-sex couples and their children face when the government discriminates against them, denies them the right to marry and brands them as second class citizens.

Dennis Johnson.

Dennis Johnson

If the Iowa Supreme Court upholds the district court ruling for marriage equality, it will join the high courts of Massachusetts, California and Connecticut in recognizing the right of same-sex couples to marry.

In December 2005, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit with the Polk County Court on behalf of six same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses in Iowa, arguing that denying marriage to the couples violates the Iowa State Constitution. In August of 2007, the district court ruled that denying marriage to same-sex couples is unconstitutional. In March 2008, 15 friend-of-the-court briefs were filed supporting same-sex couples seeking the right to marry, and the right of their children not to have their families branded as inferior. Those briefs were signed by hundreds of Iowans, including former Lieutenant Governors Joy Corning and Sally Pederson.

The other plaintiff families in Varnum v. Brien are David Twombley and Larry Hoch; Dawn and Jen BarbouRoske with their daughters McKinley and Breeanna; Ingrid Olson and Reva Evans with their son Jamison; Jason Morgan and Chuck Swaggerty; and Bill Musser and Otter Dreaming.

Lambda Legal and One Iowa are hosting educational events throughout the state, featuring the plaintiff couples and other local leaders to talk about the importance of marriage equality.