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Same-Sex Marriage in Iowa at Five Years: Is The Trend Towards Acceptance?

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - With another marking of April 3, Trish and Kate Varnum of Cedar Rapids know a phone call from a reporter to talk about same-sex marriage may be coming.

"We are happy to talk to anybody about this issue because not everybody understands the issues we go through and not everybody knows a gay couple in Iowa," said Varnum.

On April 3, 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Varnum v. Brien that the state's limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples was unconstitutional. This opened the door to Iowa legalizing same-sex marriage.

In 2009, the state became just the third to recognize couples of the same gender getting married. Now 17 states plus the District of Columbia retain this status, including Minnesota and Illinois.

"I think that we're coming to the point where it's going to be accepted nationwide," said Trish Varnum.

The issue of same-sex marriage was a sharp political battle in Iowa, especially in the 2010 mid-term elections. Iowa voters did not retain the three Supreme Court justices up for retention from the 9-0 vote the year before.

Yet, in 2012, Iowa voters chose to retain Justice David Wiggins, the one of the judge in the Varnum decision who was on the ballot that November.

From a top-tier political and social issue five years ago to the current climate, where is same-sex marriage in the minds of Iowans? Not surprisingly, leaders on opposite sides offer their thoughts.

"Historic trends come and go and, right now, there is an interest in this rather bizarre experiment in time," said Chuck Hurley, vice president of The Family Leader, one of Iowa's most vocal opponents of the Varnum ruling. "So-called same-sex marriage has only been around a nanosecond in history and it will soon pass as well."

Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, a gay civil rights groups, said "more than 6,000" same-sex couples have gotten married in Iowa over the past five years. She said she does see more levels of acceptance from people who may have sharply opposed it in 2009.

"What I find in my private conversations with Republicans, with conservatives is that, this is not the big issue for them anymore," said Red Wing. "They are getting to know us as people, know families with same-gender parents. It doesn't seem to bother them as much."

The results of a February 2014 Iowa Poll on same-sex marriage reveal sharp divisions, mainly by age.

The poll, conducted by the Des Moines Register, asked this question. "Are you more proud or more disappointed today that Iowa allows same-sex couples to marry, or does this not much matter to you?"

Age 55 & Over: Disappointed 51%, Proud 18%, Doesn't Matter 30%
Age 35-54: Doesn't Matter 44%, Disappointed 30%, Proud 25%
Age 35 & Under: Proud 45%, Doesn't Matter 32%, Disappointed 18%

The poll holds the results of 703 adults living in Iowa.

This differs from a 2008 Iowa Poll, where the majority of respondents said they marriage should only be between one woman and one man.

Hurley calls same-sex marriage "a bad experiment" but said The Family Leader is trying to take "the long view" on this issue.

"It is discouraging in the sense that it seems hard to imagine that, 40 years ago, no one, no one would have talked about same-sex marriage," said Hurley on Wednesday during an interview outside the Supreme Court building in Des Moines. "There has been a vast change and most of that has come through Hollywood."

In the five years since Varnum v. Brien, Kate and Trish Varnum still live in Cedar Rapids as they raise their two-year-old son. The Varnums said they never felt threatened or ever in danger after the 2009 decision.

"I think that says a lot about people in Iowa in that we care about our neighbors and our friends and we don't want to see people hurt," said Kate Varnum. "We want what's right for all families in Iowa."

Calling this a "normal year", the Varnums added that this was the first year they were able to file federal income taxes as a married couple, which did make a positive financial difference.

"We have no problem being the face of equality in Iowa," said Trish Varnum.

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