Iowa's Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on gay marriage, saying the provision violates the constitutional rights of gay and lesbian couples.
The unanimous ruling issued Friday would make Iowa the third state where gay marriage is legal. The court's decision upholds a 2007 Polk County District Court judge's ruling.
The 2007 ruling prompted nearly two dozen people to apply for marriage licenses in Polk County, Iowa's most populous county and home to Des Moines. Only one couple managed to get married before the decision was stayed the next day.
The case stems from a 2005 lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal, a New York-based gay rights organization. The group filed a lawsuit on behalf of six gay and lesbian Iowa couples who were denied marriage licenses.
Gay rights supporter and former state lawmaker Ed Fallon told NPR that the ruling is consistent with Iowa's history.
"Iowa has always been on the cutting edge of civil rights," Fallon said, "whether it's regarding desegregation of schools or the rights of African-Americans to be full citizens."
"This is huge. And I think it's a testament to the fairness and sense of decency that Iowans have," he said.
The decision makes Iowa the first state in the Midwest and the third in the nation to legalize gay marriage. Massachusetts and Connecticut permit same-sex marriage; California did briefly before voters passed a ban in November.
During oral arguments before the Supreme Court in December, Des Moines lawyer Dennis Johnson argued Iowa's ban violated his clients' due process and equal protection rights.
Roger J. Kuhle, an assistant Polk County attorney, argued that the lower court's ruling for the plaintiffs violates the separation of powers and that the issue should be left to the Legislature.
During oral arguments, Chief Justice Marsha Ternus explained that the high court would determine whether the district court erred by finding that the same-sex marriage ban violated the state constitution and whether it erred by not allowing the county's expert witness testimony.
The timing of the decision could be awkward for state lawmakers who are on track to end the legislative session in coming weeks.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) told reporters that it's "exceedingly unlikely" the Legislature would deal with the gay marriage issue this year, regardless of the court's ruling.
"This is the final step in a lengthy legal proceeding," said Gronstal. "We're going to wait and see that decision and review it before we take any action."
From NPR and wire service reports