The seven justices on the Iowa Supreme court ruled unanimously Friday in favor of six gay and lesbian couples who had been denied a marriage license. Justices not only endorsed gay marriage, they also rejected the remedy of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. Gay and lesbian couples can marry as early as Friday, April 24. It is a sweeping win for gay rights advocates with national implications.

The court rejected all objections to gay marriage when it said gay couples are equal under the law to heterosexual couples.

“[W]ith respect to the government's purpose of 'providing an institutional basis for defining the fundamental relational rights and responsibilities of persons,' same-sex couple are similarly situated to opposite-sex couples,” adding that, “The Legislature has excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification.”

The plaintiffs, who filed their lawsuit in 2005, spoke at a press conference hosted by Lambda Legal, the legal group that argued the case. One by one, the couples approached the podium and thanked the Iowa Supreme Court for its decision.

Opponents gathered outside the state Supreme Court building, where they pressed lawmakers to reverse the court's decision. Members of the Iowa Family Policy Center urged passage of a bill that would call for a referendum to ban gay marriage in the state constitution. A constitutional amendment requires passage by both houses of the Legislature in two consecutive legislative sessions and a majority vote of the people. Such a bill is currently before the State Government Committee, but with only 10 days left in the session passage appears unlikely.

“A handful of people who were not elected to office – they were appointed – have rendered a decision; a decision that is contrary to the will of the people. It's contrary to God's law. And it's time for the people through their elected officials and their elected representatives to decide what the law is going to be in this state. Courts do not determine law, people determine law. This is government of the people, by the people and for the people,” Danny Carroll, a former Republican legislator and chairman of the Iowa Family Policy Center, told reporters.

But there was no raining on the rainbow-colored parade, and gay groups praised the ruling.

Alan Van Capelle, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, a group that lobbies for gay marriage in New York, said he was “thrilled” with the decision.

“We are happy that another state has joined Massachusetts and Connecticut in declaring that nothing short of full marriage equality will put an end to the hardships that many of our families experience on a daily basis,” Van Capelle said in a statement.

“Today, America's heart can truly be found in the heartland,” said Jody M. Huckaby, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a nationwide gay and lesbian support group. “At last, every family in Iowa will be afforded the rights, protections and responsibilities that their commitments deserve.”

“Without a single page of dissent, the shepherds of Iowa's constitution have risen to the defense of loving couples and upheld the most noble idea of our legal system: that, indeed, we are created, and must be treated, equally under the law,” he continued.

“This ruling marks another watershed moment in the struggle for full equality,” Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said in a statement praising the ruling.

Iowa joins Massachusetts and Connecticut in offering gay marriage. Gay marriage became available briefly in California when the state Supreme Court ruled a 2000 voter-approved gay marriage ban unconstitutional, but voters yanked the right back when they banned gay marriage in the constitution.

Meanwhile, gay marriage in Vermont hangs by a thread. Last night, the Democratic-led House approved a gay marriage bill, joining the Senate, which voted in favor of the law last week. But the bill passed five votes shy of the three-quarters majority needed to fend off a promised veto by Governor Jim Douglas that threatens to derail gay marriage in Vermont.