How a divorce helped kick-start marriage equality in Iowa

Photo by Karen Desuyo

The path to marriage equality in Iowa started with a divorce.

Kimberly Brown and Jennifer Perez traveled from their home in western Iowa to Vermont in 2002 to be joined in a civil union, a substitute for traditional civic marriages Vermont created for same-sex couples in 2000. But during the following year, Brown and Perez decided to go their separate ways. Like any couple in their situation, they hired attorneys.

A petition to dissolve the civil union was included in a group of divorce petitions presented to Woodbury County District Judge Jeffrey Neary in November 2003. Neary realized any decision he made would be controversial. But it was an amicable split, and Neary felt bound by judicial comity to respect the laws of another state as long as they didn’t contradict the laws of Iowa.

Iowa passed a law against same-sex couples getting married in 1998, but nothing in that law dealt with the divorce of people married in other states. Neary approved Brown and Perez’s petition.

The Sioux City Journal printed a story on the divorce, but it wasn’t until the Des Moines Register ran a front-page story titled “Iowa Judge OKs Lesbian Divorce” on Dec. 2, 2003, that the case got much attention.

Conservative politicians and anti-LGBTQ groups across the state exploded in outrage. A same-sex divorce was an implicit recognition that same-sex unions were valid, they complained. Worse, they feared Neary’s decision might turn Iowa into a destination for same-sex couples wanting a divorce.

A group of right-wing lawmakers filed a petition with the Iowa Supreme Court, asking the justices to invalidate the Brown-Perez divorce. Republicans in the legislature began pushing for an amendment to the Iowa Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. Both efforts not only failed, they actually backfired on the opponents of same-sex marriage.

“Had those legislators left the case alone, I wouldn’t have gotten Lambda Legal’s attention,” Des Moines attorney Sharon Malheiro later said. “We can thank them for Varnum.”

As Tom Witosky and Matt Hansen explained in their book about the Varnum decision, Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality, Malheiro, then-president of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in Des Moines, had been trying to interest Lambda Legal, a nonprofit legal organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights, in supporting a court challenge to Iowa’s 1998 marriage law.

Malheiro believed same-sex couples could win, thanks to the Iowa Supreme Court’s long tradition of protecting civil rights more strongly than the U.S. Supreme Court does. But she also knew that a case would be expensive, so it needed the support of an organization like Lambda Legal. She reached out to Camilia Taylor, an attorney with Lambda Legal’s Marriage Project in Chicago.

Taylor was intrigued by the Brown-Perez case, and impressed by the way the Iowa Supreme Court handled it. In June 2005, the court dismissed the lawmakers’ petition to invalidate.

“Iowa law has never permitted such unwarranted interference in other people’s cases,” Chief Justice Louis Lavorato wrote. “Simply having an opinion does not suffice for standing.”

Taylor had already been consulting with Malheiro and fellow attorney Janelle Rettig about the possibility of Lambda Legal launching a case in Iowa when the court dismissed the lawmaker’s petition. Rettig, still four years away from becoming a Johnson County Supervisor, was already a well-known advocate for civil and human rights in Iowa. She and her wife, Robin Butler, had been leaders of the opposition to the constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. (Rettig and Butler had been married in Canada, where same-sex marriage had been After the court’s ruling, Taylor, Malheiro and Rettig agreed it was time to act.

Six same-sex couples from around the state were selected. Starting on Nov. 3, 2005, each would go to the Polk County Recorder’s Office and apply for a marriage license. All six were rejected. On Dec. 13, 2005, Lambda Legal, working with Des Moines attorney Dennis Johnson, sued Polk County Recorder Timothy Brien on behalf of the couples. Katherine Varnum of Cedar Rapids had already agreed to give her name to the case as the lead plaintiff.

Polk County District Judge Robert Hanson ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on Aug. 30, 2007, finding that prohibiting same-sex marriage violated rights guaranteed to Iowans by the state constitution. Hanson put his decision on hold four hours after issuing it, because it was being appealed, but during that brief period Iowa’s first same-sex marriage happened.

Timothy McQuillan and Sean Fritz of Ames, who weren’t part of the lawsuit, drove to their recorder’s office in Des Moines, got a marriage license and were married during the 240 minutes same-sex marriage was possible.

But for everyone else, the question of same-sex marriage’s legality wasn’t settled until the Iowa Supreme Court issued its decision on April 3, 2009. That decision was unanimous — Hanson’s ruling was affirmed.

Varnum v. Brien was the first time any state supreme court had ruled unanimously in favor of same-sex marriage. It was also the first time a court had directly addressed the religious objections to same-sex marriage.

“The sanctity of all religious marriages celebrated in the future will have the same meaning as those celebrated in the past,” Justice Mark Cady wrote for the court. “The only difference is civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law. This result is what our constitution requires.”

The reaction to the Iowa Supreme Court decision in Varnum v. Brien is almost as famous as the decision itself. Conservative politicians and anti-LGBTQ groups were enraged. And not just in Iowa. National groups flooded the state with money — reportedly more than $700,000 — to defeat three members of the supreme court on the judicial retention ballot in the 2010 election. It worked. All three lost.

Less well-known are the attempts to unseat Judge Neary, who approved the Brown-Perez divorce in 2003. His regularly scheduled retention elections happened in 2004 and 2010. He survived both times, but by lower-than-expected margins. By 2016, however, same-sex marriage was no longer generating much anger in voters. Neary won retention that year with 71.2 percent of the vote.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 261.

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