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Iowa Continues Tradition as Civil Rights Pioneer

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April 4, 2009

Earlier today, the seven justices of the Iowa Supreme Court continued the state’s long history of pioneering civil rights by striking down a state law prohibiting same-sex marriages. In a unanimous decision, the Court declared that it was unconstitutional to bar gay and lesbian couples from marriage and ordered the state to grant same-sex couples the ability to marry.

Students of American history know that this decision is hardly surprising. As the Court noted in its decision, Iowa has long been WAY out in front on civil rights issues, often leading the rest of the country by years and even decades.

In its very first decision in 1839, the Supreme Court of the Territory of Iowa “refused to treat a human being as property to enforce a contract for slavery” and held that the state “must extend equal protection to persons of all races and conditions.” In 1869, the nation’s first female lawyer was admitted in Iowa, decades before U.S. Supreme Court decisions that actually upheld states’ rights to discriminate against women. And in 1873, 91 years before racial discrimination in public accommodations was struck down nationwide, Iowa justices ruled that a woman could not be prevented from entering an all-white dining room based on the color of her skin.

This victory is especially encouraging on the heels of recent legislative victories in Vermont and New Hampshire, where legislatures have passed bills that would legalize same-sex marriage, and developments in Illinois, Wisconsin and Washington, where pending legislation could provide rights for same-sex couples in the form of comprehensive civil unions.

Congratulations to the plaintiffs and justices for their work in bringing marriage equality to the Midwest. Once again, Iowa has set the example that the rest of the country will follow.

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