Same-sex marriage has been legalized in Iowa.
In a unanimous ruling Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court decided that the 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, which limited marriage to a man and a woman, was unconstitutional.
"The court reaffirmed that a statute inconsistent with the Iowa Constitution must be declared void, even though it may be supported by strong and deep-seated traditional beliefs and popular opinion," the justices said in a summary of the ruling.
"Equal protection under the Iowa Constitution 'is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike,'" they added. "Since territorial times, Iowa has given meaning to this constitutional provision, striking blows to slavery and segregation, and recognizing women's rights. The court found the issue of same-sex marriage comes to it with the same importance as the landmark cases of the past."
Iowa is the third state to allow same-sex marriage, after Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The four-year legal dispute began in December 2005 when a lawsuit was filed on behalf of six same-sex couples demanding marriage licenses.
A district court judge ruled in 2007 that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. The state Supreme Court upheld that ruling.
Same-sex marriage proponents celebrated Friday's ruling, surprised that the decision came more quickly than anticipated.
Meanwhile, opponents criticized the decision, especially for overturning what Iowans had supported.
"The Iowa marriage law was simple, settled, and overwhelmingly supported by Iowans," said Douglas Napier, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. "There was simply no legitimate reason for the court to redefine marriage."
"The court stepped outside of its proper role of interpreting the law and has instead overruled the will of the people and created new law," he added. "Marriage as one man and one woman has been the law in Iowa for 170 years. The Defense of Marriage Act was nearly unanimously supported by the legislature when it was passed. It was supported by the governor and a majority of Iowans."
The court's decision is expected to take effect in about 21 days.
The gay marriage affirmation comes on the heels of a Vermont House vote that favored legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. On Thursday, the Vermont House of Representatives voted 95-52 to allow same-sex marriage. Gov. Jim Douglas said he plans to veto the legislation.