DES MOINES, Iowa – Same-sex couples in Iowa began holding hastily planned weddings Monday as the state became the third to allow gay marriage, a leap that even some supporters find hard to grasp in the nation's heartland.
Within hours of a state Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage taking effect, several same-sex couples had exchanged vows on the steps of the Polk County Administrative Building.
"It's not very romantic is it?" Melisa Keeton joked, referring to the location of the ceremony and the media attention, before marrying Shelley Wolfe.
The couple were allowed to wed after getting a judge to waive the state's three-day waiting period. The waiver was granted after the couple claimed the wait was stressful on Keeton, who is pregnant and due in August.
The couple, who will go by the last name Keeton, were married by the Rev. Peg Esperanza of the Church of the Holy Spirit. She later married at least two other couples, all at no charge.
"God sent me here today, and I've said OK," said Esperanza, a lesbian who plans to marry her partner in October.
On April 3, the Iowa justices upheld a lower court ruling that rejected a state law restricting marriage to a union between a man and woman. The decision added Iowa to the list of states where gay marriage is legal, joining Massachusetts and Connecticut. A Vermont law allowing gay marriage will take effect in September.
Officials said the Polk County recorder's office had received 82 marriage applications from same-sex couples by 4 p.m.
One of them was Alicia Zacher, 24, and Jessica Roach, 22, who waited in a misting rain to enter the office and file their application. They later got a waiver and planned to get married as soon as possible after seeing how California voters last year reinstated a ban on same-sex marriage.
"You just never know when they'll try to take it away," Roach said.
A poll by the University of Iowa taken just before the high court's ruling showed 26 percent of Iowans support gay marriage. That number rises to more than 50 percent when people were asked if they supported either gay marriage or civil unions.
"If they want to marry, I don't see a reason not to let them," said Joe Biase, a 31-year-old college student from Des Moines. "For a state in the heartland, it's come a long way."
Tom Wittman, 55, of Johnston, agreed.
"I think it's fine," he said. "It is an issue of equal rights."
Still, the issue is far from settled.
Bryan English of the Iowa Family Policy Center, which opposes same-sex marriage, said the Legislature and Gov. Chet Culver had put some "poor county recorders in an awfully tough position today" by not working to block the court's ruling from taking effect.
The group wants the state to begin the multiyear process of amending Iowa's constitution to overturn the court decision.
Culver and majority Democrats have refused, which Republicans predicted will hurt Democrats in the 2010 elections.
One gubernatorial candidate, Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats, has already made gay marriage a focal point of his run for the Republican nomination.
"This will be a major issue in the campaign of 2010," Vander Plaats said.
Some Republican strategists warned, however, that the GOP could overplay its hand. They said Iowans largely oppose gay marriage but may not consider it a make-or-break issue.
"That issue is not a negative one for Republicans, but if Republicans let this be the only thing they talk about they won't be successful in 2010, said Doug Gross, a former GOP gubernatorial nominee.
On Monday, a handful of Iowa's largest counties saw an initial rush on marriage applications from same-sex couples.
At the Pottawattamie County recorder's office in western Iowa, Marilyn Hebing said the office had applications for marriage licenses from 23 same-sex couples by early afternoon.
"We're pretty busy," she said.
In eastern Iowa, Johnson County Recorder Kim Painter, Iowa's only openly gay recorder, said that within the first half hour her office had accepted about a half dozen applications and had about 10 more couples waiting to file.
Painter said she and her partner plan to apply to be married this week.
Marilyn Dopheide, the Carroll County recorder and president of the Iowa County Recorder's Association, said that by lunchtime there had been no problems with licenses being issued.
"Everything is going smoothly," she said.
Some judges refused to issue waivers to same-sex couples.
In Cerro Gordo County, District Court Judge Colleen Weiland said she was presented with two applications from same-sex couples and denied them both.
"Some judges, frankly, interpret it a lot more leniently than I do," she said of Iowa's law concerning waivers. "The ones that were presented this morning I didn't believe to be an emergency or extraordinary circumstance."
Scott County Recorder Rita Vargas said three same-sex couples applied for a marriage license by midday Monday. One couple asked for a waiver, but a judge denied the request.
The couple, 22-year-old Tearese Bomar, and 27-year-old Shamera Page, both of Davenport, said on the waiver form that they had waited a long time to have their union recognized and didn't want to wait any longer, Vargas said.
"The judge just determined they didn't have enough extraordinary circumstances to grant that waiver," she said.
Besides the three-day waiting period, another state law could prove difficult for gay couples: Iowa has no residency requirement for marriage, but a divorce requires at least one of those involved to live in the state for a year.
Massachusetts and Connecticut have similar laws.
Tom Barbar, co-chairman of the Massachusetts Bar Association's Family Law section, said there have been about 11,000 gay marriages in the state and "a few hundred" same-sex divorces. He said there occasionally have been problems as out-of-state couples seek divorces.
"What do you do if it doesn't work out? It could become an issue," Barbar said.
In Iowa, gay marriage opponents have no other legal options to appeal the high court ruling at the state or federal level because they were not parties to the lawsuit, and no federal issue was raised in the case.
Their only recourse appears to be a constitutional amendment, which couldn't get on the ballot until 2012 at the earliest. A constitutional convention could be called earlier but is unlikely.