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As Minn. considers marriage amendment, a look at same-sex unions in Iowa

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Eric Sodemann, left, and Casey Fritz pose for a photo for Sodemann's sister, Holly Guerrero, just minutes after being married in Decorah, Iowa, on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. Since same-sex marriage was legalized in Iowa in 2009, Decorah has been welcoming out-of-state couples who want to be married.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

DECORAH, Iowa -- The state of Iowa is Exhibit A for proponents of a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. The measure on the November ballot in Minnesota would prevent the courts or the Legislature from legalizing same-sex marriage, which is already against state law.

In 2009, Iowa's Supreme Court ruled that limiting civil marriage to a union between a man and a woman violated the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. It became the third state in the nation, and the first in the heartland, to legalize marriage between same-sex couples.

In Decorah, just over the Minnesota border, what has changed - and what hasn't?

Casey Fritz and Eric Sodemann stand tall in western shirts, jeans and boots in the county clerk's office at the Winneshiek County Courthouse. The Minneapolis men drove down on a recent afternoon to marry in Iowa.

Sodemann, 38, and Fritz, 37, have been together for five years.

The civil ceremony lasted just a few minutes.

"Five minutes, and it changes everything," Fritz said. Sodemann agreed: "It's kind of amazing."

The new reality is still settling in for Iowans, too. 

The law changed three-and-a-half years ago, but people and churches did not change overnight.

Across the street from the courthouse where Fritz and Sodemann were married is Decorah's only Roman Catholic Church, St. Benedict's. 

The Rev. Phil Gibbs
The Rev. Phil Gibbs, who is the pastor at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Decorah, Iowa, speaks about same-sex marriage. "I was dumbfounded" when the ruling came down, he said, adding that he was "troubled by that in terms of the traditional institution of marriage."
Alex Kolyer for MPR

The Rev. Phil Gibbs still remembers his surprise when the ruling came down:

"I was dumbfounded. I thought that came out of left field in terms of it being announced the way it was, and troubled by that in terms of the traditional institution of marriage." 

In accordance with Catholic Church policy, Gibbs doesn't perform same-sex weddings. He says people in his circle are quiet on the topic. He thinks parishioners struggle because they don't want to be viewed as intolerant, yet he reminds them there's nothing wrong with being committed to your faith's values.

Other Iowa clergy members embraced the change.

"I was overjoyed," said Joan Mau, the pastor of Good Shepherd, one of three Lutheran churches in this town of 8,000. 

Decorah, which was settled by Norwegian immigrants, is home to Luther College. It's a politically blue part of Iowa. Mau sees marrying same-sex couples as a matter of justice. 

"It was very much like any wedding I've ever done, except it was two grooms."

But she says Lutheran ministers are in a bind. 

"Because the state says we can, but our church isn't there yet," she said.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has voted to allow gay and lesbian ministers in committed relationships to serve, but the church doesn't perform weddings for same-sex couples.

Last year, another Lutheran pastor in town, Marion Pruitt-Jefferson, risked reprimand from the bishop by performing the first same-sex wedding in a Decorah church, for two men from Minneapolis.

"It was very much like any wedding I've ever done," she said, "except it was two grooms." 

Pruitt-Jefferson -- who has a gay son, also living in Minneapolis -- says she was honored to perform the men's ceremony. The promised letter of reprimand never arrived.

Like Pruitt-Jefferson, Mau feels proud of what Iowa has accomplished, even if it's a work in progress. 

"The other day as I was sitting at the co-op having lunch, one half of one of our gay couples in town walked by with their baby in a stroller, and I saw that and said, 'I'm really happy to be living in a town where that can happen.'" 

The Rev. Marion Pruitt-Jefferson
The Rev. Marion Pruitt-Jefferson, formerly a pastor at First Lutheran Church in Decorah, Iowa, speaks about same-sex marriage. Pruitt-Jefferson, who has a gay son, says she was honored to perform the first same-sex wedding ceremony in a Decorah church.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

The family she's talking about is Bill Musser's.  He was one of the litigants in the case that led to same-sex marriage in Iowa. 

"This is something that's important for us as a family," Musser said, "and that we define ourselves a family rather than two gay men that live together as partners." 

Musser, who grew up in Spring Grove, Minn., was able to marry Otter Dreaming on the first day same-sex Iowa couples could wed. They were married at their house, with no great fanfare. 

Musser says he could finally figure out what box to check on forms that ask for marital status. Within the confines of that little "married" box, he says, is a world of difference in social and legal perceptions of human relationships. 

"Not everybody here supports us, but at least everybody respects us. I think. And that's what we ask, really," Musser said. "People don't have to agree, people don't have to support, but we ask only for the respect. And we have received that. And I think part of that is we try to respect the other side of things as well. I think it's important to do that. You cannot deride people who have firmly held convictions and then expect them to support you." 

At the Back Home Bakery and Coffee Shop, people gather for their daily coffee and political chat.

It grows quiet when the subject of same-sex marriage comes up.

Then Don Roby offers his view:

Decorah School Superintendent Mike Haluska
Decorah School Superintendent Mike Haluska says there hasn't been any change in the school system since the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2009. "Conversation maybe in government class has changed just because it's now the law, but curriculum, no," he said.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

"For many years I was opposed to it, but I've changed my mind," he said. "And the reason I changed my mind: I have a nephew who is gay and he has a partner who is gay, and they've taken in seven handicapped children and are raising them as foster parents. So that changed my mind."

Across the table, Bob Teslow admits he was surprised when Iowa adopted same-sex marriage.

"I guess I'm not really in favor of it, but I do tolerate it," Teslow said. "I guess if they're happy that's all that's really important, as long as they don't try to impose their values on me." 

When the Iowa Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, it was out of step with public opinion on the matter. But polls show acceptance among Iowans has grown since the ruling. There have been no lawsuits.

Decorah School Superintendent Mike Haluska says legalization of same-sex marriage has not changed what's taught in schools.

"As far as our curriculum is concerned, it hasn't changed in regard to that," Haluska said. "Conversation maybe in government class has changed just because it's now the law, but curriculum, no."

Haluska believes he has been able to attract top teachers because Decorah is seen as a welcoming community. 

Some Minnesota employers that oppose a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage say it would interfere with their ability to attract and retain top talent. In Iowa, neither Iowa Workforce Development nor the Iowa Business Council tracks whether the ruling has made any difference in recruiting. 

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Iowa feel it's not a settled question.

Bill Musser in Decorah, Iowa
Decorah resident Bill Musser and his husband were among six couples who sued for marriage rights in Iowa. The case went to the state Supreme Court and subsequently made same-sex marriage legal in Iowa.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

In 2010, they successfully voted out three of the seven Supreme Court justices who made the unanimous ruling. A fourth justice, David Wiggins, is on the ballot in November. 

  Greg Baker, political director for the Iowa Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization, is confident that Iowans will remove him. 

"The fire is still very much there," Baker said, "and they're largely the main reason, our grass-roots stuff is the main reason why we were able to vote out three judges in 2010 ... So amongst the people that are passionate on the issue, the fire is still very much there in Iowa."

The Iowans for Freedom bus tour to push for the ouster of the judge will visit 17 cities across Iowa this week. 

It will not stop in Decorah. 

The river bluff town has carved out a niche as a wedding spot for same-sex couples, mostly from out of state, the largest share from Minnesota, more women than men.

Amalia Vagts, whose day job is at Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, a resource for GLBT clergy, received a small tourism grant to start a website called "Welcome in Decorah," a wedding guide for out-of-state same-sex couples.

The rings
Eric Sodemann and Casey Fritz show their wedding rings just minutes after being married in Decorah, Iowa, on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012.
Alex Kolyer

She found that vendors were enthusiastic to work with the new clientele, and Iowans are getting used to living in a place where both straight and gay couples can marry.  

"The reality is it hasn't made a difference in most people's lives," Vagts said, "and it's made a very positive, wonderful difference in some people's lives." 

Three-and-a-half years after the ruling, there's still a feeling that Iowa is holding its breath. 

Supporters of same-sex marriage don't want anything to upset what they see as a great victory for justice. Opponents are focusing on removing what they see as activist judges responsible for the decision, and they are biding their time. 

The earliest that Iowa voters could reverse the decision through their own constitutional amendment would be 2016.