Andrew Zahorsky and Anthony Nemcek's commitment ceremony this October in Red Wing will include 300 guests at the landmark St. James Hotel. Their legal marriage in Iowa early next month will be a humble courthouse affair, but it will carry far broader implications.

Zahorsky and Nemcek, both 27, had been planning their commitment ceremony for months when the Iowa Supreme Court surprised the nation by unanimously upholding a lower-court decision that said confining marriage to heterosexuals violates the constitutional right to equal protection. The April 3 decision opened the door for same-sex couples to marry in Iowa starting Monday.

More significantly, people on both sides of the issue believe it has shifted the landscape of the debate.

"Because it is a Midwestern heartland state, it's a sign of the sea change that's going to be happening," Nemcek said of the Iowa ruling. "It's just the beginning. "

Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, the anti- same-sex marriage group that helped Proposition 8 triumph last fall in California, sees similar portents.

"It makes it very clear that if it can happen in Iowa, it can happen anywhere," Gallagher said. "And if we don't want it to happen, we need to get organized."

States from Maine to California look to be the next battlegrounds in a legal fight that is leapfrogging the country. In Minnesota, the two sides are stalemated for now, but the debate promises to be part of each legislative session for years to come.

'A greater sense of urgency'

Advocates are hoping the momentum from Iowa will spill over into a number of marriage debates on the East Coast. In the weeks following the Iowa ruling, New York Gov. David Paterson introduced a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. In Vermont, the Legislature overruled Gov. Jim Douglas' veto of a bill that recognizes same-sex marriage. And the Washington, D.C., City Council unanimously voted to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

The Washington decision could have far-reaching consequences, since Congress must approve all laws passed in the District. That congressional review could take place as soon as next month.

Maine and New Hampshire are also debating bills that would allow same-sex marriage.

With those states potentially joining Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont in recognizing same-sex marriage, the National Organization for Marriage has responded with a $1.5 million ad campaign featuring its controversial commercial, titled "A Gathering Storm."

The group's donor base doubled from about 8,000 to 16,000 in the first three months of this year and a second TV ad is in the works, Gallagher said. The Minnesota Family Council is aggressively reaching out to 100,000 people to help it combat bills that it thinks could help pave the way for same-sex marriage.

"What [the Iowa ruling] communicates to me is a greater sense of urgency here in Minnesota," said Minnesota Family Council President Tom Prichard. "People shouldn't assume that this can't happen here because we're conservative. I don't know that we're any more liberal than the people in Iowa. We're seeing the threat."

Prichard's group gathered Minnesota lawmakers, activists and religious leaders last month to introduce a state constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to a man and a woman. It's the fourth time this decade that same-sex marriage opponents have backed a similar amendment, and as happened in the past, the latest effort has stalled in the Legislature.

Twenty-one states, from Oregon to Kentucky, have passed constitutional amendments limiting marriage to a man and a woman. Recent additions to that roster include Minnesota neighbors South Dakota and Wisconsin, which made the move in 2006. Constitutional amendments are a key strategy for many of the groups fighting gay marriage.

"The fact is the court does not have authority to write law," said Bryan English, spokesman for the Iowa Family Policy Center, which supports a measure to amend the Iowa constitution. Introduced before the state Supreme Court ruling, the bill has gained little traction so far in the Iowa Legislature.

In Minnesota, proponents of same-sex marriage have found themselves also stymied.

A bill introduced this session by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, that would recognize same-sex marriage hasn't gotten off the ground. And a victory through the courts, as in Iowa, is unlikely in Minnesota because of an unfavorable legal precedent set in the 1970s, said Amy Johnson, executive director of OutFront Minnesota. Further, Gov. Tim Pawlenty would likely veto any bills recognizing same-sex marriage.

Johnson sees attaining same-sex marriage rights in Minnesota as a three- to five-year goal because of Pawlenty's resistance.

But Iowa's proximity will mean that many Minnesotans will get to see how the law affects life there.

"I don't think most states in the Midwest will rush to pass marriage laws," said Toni Broaddus, executive director of the Equality Federation, a national group. "But more bills will be introduced, and people will talk. That's a positive thing to have that conversation.''

Hundreds planning to marry

The only way the Iowa court ruling can be reversed is by amending the state constitution, a process that could take until 2012 at the earliest.

By that time, thousands of gay Iowans and out-of-state residents -- including many from Minnesota -- will have been legally married in the state.

Because Minnesota won't legally recognize those marriages, the decision to marry there carries complications. Iowa doesn't have a residency requirement for marriage licenses, but it does require a three-day waiting period for out-of-staters that can be waived only by a judge. While hundreds of couples from Iowa have contacted One Iowa, the state's largest gay advocacy group, about their intentions to marry, only a smattering are from nearby states, said spokesman Justin Uebelhor.

About 15 couples from Minneapolis' All God's Children Church plan to head to Iowa together during the second week of May to marry. But others are holding out, not wanting to marry unless their union will be legally recognized by the state of Minnesota or the federal government.

"When I finally do get married, I want it to be legal," said Minneapolis resident Jett Snyder. "I would want that day to represent equality as well as the relationship."

Last week Snyder, her partner, Christy Stowe, and their son, Tyler, rallied at the State Capitol for gay rights. "I always say we're married in spirit," Snyder said.

For Nemcek and Zahorsky, the decision to marry in Iowa wasn't hard.

Partners for about three years, the men have worked as banquet servers at lavish receptions and grown restless watching straight couples tie the knot.

"Why don't we do that?" Nemcek asked himself. Last October, they decided on the next best thing -- a commitment ceremony.

The night the Iowa Supreme Court issued its ruling, the men, who plan to settle in Welch or Red Wing and have children one day, knew they couldn't pass up their chance at a good old-fashioned legal wedding.

"The only reason one of us hasn't proposed is because we didn't see it as an option," Nemcek said.

Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391