The Iowa Supreme Court struck down a ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional Friday and ruled that the rural midwestern state must allow gay and lesbian women "full access" to the institution of civil marriage.
Only two other US states currently recognize same-sex marriage -- Connecticut and Massachusetts -- while nine others grant some of the legal benefits of marriage to gay couples through "civil unions" or domestic partnership laws.
In a unanimous opinion, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the state's ban on gay marriage "violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution."
"Consequently, the language in Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil marriage to a man and a woman must be stricken from the statute, and the remaining statutory language must be interpreted and applied in a manner allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage," the 69-page ruling concluded.
The decision was hailed by gay rights activists and the couples who challenged Iowa's ban on gay marriage.
"We've been waiting 18 years for this day," plaintiffs Jen and Dawn BarbouRoske of Iowa City said in a statement.
"We have built a life and family together-marriage is the only word that describes our commitment to each other and our family."
"Today's victory is a testament to the strength of love, hope and courage-our clients have shown an abundance of all three for many years and now at long last they will be able to marry," said Camilla Taylor, the senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal who spearheaded the lawsuit.
"This will go down as another proud day in Iowa's long history of protecting individual rights."