Gay marriage, seemingly the province of the nation's two coasts, is just weeks away from becoming a reality in the heartland and apparently it will be years before social conservatives have a chance to stop it.
The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday unanimously upheld a lower-court ruling that rejected a state law restricting marriage to a union between a man and woman. Now gays and lesbians may exchange vows as soon as April 24 following the landmark decision.
The county attorney who defended the law said he would not seek a rehearing. The only recourse for opponents appeared to be a constitutional amendment, which couldn't get on the ballot until 2012 at the earliest.
"I would say the mood is one of mourning right now in a lot of ways," said a dejected Bryan English, spokesman for the Iowa Family Policy Center, a conservative group that opposes same-sex marriage.
In the meantime, same-sex marriage opponents may try to enact residency requirements for marriage so that gays and lesbians from across the country could not travel to Iowa to wed.
U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, urged the Legislature to do so, saying he feared without residency requirements Iowa would "become the gay marriage mecca."
Only Massachusetts and Connecticut currently permit same-sex marriage. For six months last year, California's high court allowed gay marriage before voters banned it in November.
For gays and lesbians, meanwhile, the day was one of jubilation. The Vermont House of Representatives also passed a measure Friday that would allow same-sex couples to wed, on a 94-52 roll call vote, just short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a promised veto by Gov. Jim Douglas.
Gay marriage supporters hoped to convince a few Vermont legislators to switch when it comes to the override vote, which could be taken as soon as Tuesday.
In Iowa, hundreds cheered, waved rainbow flags and shed tears of joy at rallies in seven cities Friday evening. "Corn-fed and Ready to Wed!" read one man's sign at a gathering at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
In downtown Des Moines, about 300 people gathered beneath rainbow flags to celebrate including Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie.
"We finally have equality in Iowa," said Harold Delaria, of Des Moines, who attended the rally and has two gay children. "It's kind of the last wall of legalized discrimination and it's coming tumbling down."
The Rev. Diane McLanahan of Trinity United Methodist Church in Des Moines acknowledged that many people of faith won't agree with the ruling. With that in mind, she said the court has reached a decision that "pretty much insists that this will not be a debate about religious rights but a matter of equality and fairness."
In its ruling, the Supreme Court upheld an August 2007 decision by a judge who found that a state law limiting marriage to a man and a woman violates the constitutional rights of equal protection.
Iowa lawmakers have "excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification," the justices wrote.
To issue any other decision, the seven justices said, "would be an abdication of our constitutional duty."
At a news conference announcing the decision, plaintiff Kate Varnum, 34, introduced her partner, Trish Varnum, as "my fiance."
"I never thought I'd be able to say that," she said, fighting back tears.
Jason Morgan, 38, said he and his partner, Chuck Swaggerty, adopted two sons, confronted the death of Swaggerty's mother and endured a four-year legal battle as plaintiffs.
"If being together though all of that isn't love and commitment or isn't family or marriage, then I don't know what is," Morgan said. "We are very happy with the decision today and very proud to live in Iowa."
Iowa has a history of being in the forefront on social issues. It was among the first states to legalize interracial marriage and to allow married women to own property. It was also the first state to admit a woman to the bar to practice law and was a leader in school desegregation.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, a Democrat, said state lawmakers were unlikely to consider gay marriage legislation in this legislative session, which is expected to end within weeks.
Gronstal also said he's "not inclined" to propose a constitutional amendment during next year's session. Without a vote by the Legislature this year or next, the soonest gay marriage could be repealed would be 2014.
Amendments to Iowa's constitution must be passed by the House and Senate in two consecutive general assemblies, which each last two years, and then approved by a simple majority of voters during a general election.
Iowa's Democratic governor, Chet Culver, said he would review the decision before announcing his views.