KEOKUK, IOWA • In the blistering midday heat last week, the St. Louis couple stepped out of their car and walked toward a gazebo in Rand Park, 50 acres of well-kept land with panoramic views of the Mississippi River.
Waiting for them was Pastor Matt Hunt, of St. Paul United Church of Christ, and two longtime members of the congregation.
“Are you ready?” Hunt asked the couple, Roger Shope and Ken Lamos.
They assured Hunt they were.
Shope and Lamos came here to get married, the closest spot from their home in Benton Park to legally do so.
“It’s only three hours away, so it made the most sense,” Shope said.
Keokuk promotes itself as a city with views of three states: Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. It sits in the southernmost part of Iowa, in a sliver of the state tucked between Missouri and Illinois.
A five-minute drive west from downtown, just across the Des Moines River, is Missouri, with its constitutional ban on gay marriage. A few minutes east, across the Mississippi River, is Illinois, one of seven states offering civil unions, but not yet marriages, for gay couples. Iowa, meanwhile, is among 13 states that legally recognize same-sex marriages.
If the welcome signs were gone, it would be hard to distinguish one state from the next in this swath of the Midwest. Soy beans and corn fill hundreds of acres of fields, fertile ground along the banks of winding rivers.
But for gay couples, location is key in how their relationship is legally defined. And Keokuk is a good spot to illustrate how the U.S. has stumbled into a patchwork of laws on same-sex marriage.
“It makes no sense for marriage to sputter in and out like cellphone service depending on what side of the state border you are on,” said Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry.
In Iowa, same-sex marriage has been recognized since April 2009 after a ruling by the state’s Supreme Court. Illinois began issuing civil union licenses to gay couples on June 1, 2011. In August 2004, Missouri voters approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage; more than half of the states have similar laws.
Iowa recorded nearly 6,000 same-sex marriages through the end of 2012. The largest number took place in 2009, with 1,783, compared with 1,247 last year.
The movement to make same-sex marriage legal nationwide has scored some key victories this summer. On Thursday, the Internal Revenue Service announced that married gay couples will be able to file joint federal tax returns even if they reside in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages. That could spur more residents of Missouri and Illinois to come to Iowa or other states where same-sex marriage is allowed.
The decision by the IRS follows a ruling by the Supreme Court in June invalidating a section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited legally married same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits.
Keokuk sits on bluffs 200 feet tall, offering sweeping river views for eagle watching. About 10,700 people call this town home. The city website boasts of “Midwestern living at its best. This is how life is supposed to be.”
The city, named after the chief of the Sac and Fox Indian tribe and known as the “Gateway to Iowa,” has the largest hydroelectric power plant on the Mississippi. Town historians highlight Mark Twain’s arrival in town to work on Keokuk’s first city directory, published by the famous writer’s brother.
After gay marriage was legalized in Iowa, Keokuk became a popular spot for marriages because of its proximity to Missouri and Illinois.
Chief Keokuk’s bones are buried beneath a massive stone pedestal in Rand Park, where the St. Louis men were pronounced husband and husband last week.
The wedding ceremony in Keokuk was not the first for Shope and Lamos. In October 2007, they got married in New Hampshire, where Lamos grew up. They exchanged vows more than two years before New Hampshire legalized same-sex marriage. But at the time, the couple wanted to show their commitment to one another, surrounded by friends and family. They met online in March 2006, then had their first get-together at a McDonald’s.
“It was love at first sight,” Lamos said.
After the Supreme Court ruling this year, the men decided to get legally married so the federal benefits Shope, 56, gets as a food inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture could be extended to Lamos, 55.
Their wedding marked the first same-sex ceremony at which Hunt has officiated, something he almost didn’t do. Even though his congregation includes a lesbian couple and a transgendered member, not all parishioners are in agreement on same-sex marriage.
When Hunt was interviewed for the job two years ago, he was asked his stance on same-sex marriage.
“I wanted the job,” Hunt said. “I sidestepped the question and said I had no desire to bring more drama into my life than I have to. They were happy with that answer.”
Shope and Lamos came to town the day before their planned wedding to meet Hunt and make sure they were comfortable with him, and likewise. At first, Hunt was leaning toward telling the St. Louis couple he couldn’t do the wedding.
But he changed his mind after a long-time church member asked him what he was waiting for.
“I told him he was a chicken,” said June Odell, who served as one of the two witnesses at Shope’s and Lamos’ wedding.
She said there was no reason for Hunt to wait.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Odell, who gave the newlyweds a card wishing them well and took photos of the couple with Hunt.
Twenty-four hours after they said “I do” in Iowa, the announcement from the IRS came out, further expanding their rights as a gay couple.
“It’s another step,” Shope said. “I think the momentum’s going to continue.”
The IRS decision is likely to spur more gay couples to get married in states such as Iowa because of the financial relief that often comes with jointly filing federal tax returns.
Solomon, with Freedom to Marry, also sees the policy change as a way to encourage states such as Illinois to shift from civil unions to marriage recognition. In the first 12 months that civil unions were allowed in Illinois, 5,112 licenses were issued.
“It is not an equal status,” Solomon said of civil unions. “It was made up in 2000 in Vermont to give a status for gay couples for protections at the state level. There are no federal protections for civil unions.”
Other federal agencies are still sorting out what the Supreme Court ruling means.
Cathryn Oakley, legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy for the Human Rights Campaign, said a lot of uncertainty remained.
“The federal government has to figure out how that all is going to shake out,” she said.
For Hunt, the issue of same-sex marriage has a practical effect, as churches such as his continue to struggle in attracting young families. Stressing acceptance for all has to be part of the message, he said.
The church’s Facebook page offers this message: “Our faith is 2,000 years old. Our thinking is not.”