Iowa Supreme Court Overturns Ban on Gay Marriage

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

The Iowa Supreme Court struck down a ban on gay marriage in the case of Varnum vs. Brien today.  In a unanimous (!) decision, the court ruled that Iowa’s existing Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional because it violated the equal protection clause:

(summary of the opinion — PDF)

In addressing the case before it, the court found one constitutional principle was at the heart of the case-the doctrine of equal protection. Equal protection under the Iowa Constitution “is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike.” Since territorial times, Iowa has given meaning to this constitutional provision, striking blows to slavery and segregation, and

recognizing women’s rights. The court found the issue of same-sex marriage comes to it with the same importance as the landmark cases of the past.

Attorneys for the defendant (the county government that denied the licenses) had argued that the law defining marriage was not targeting gay couples, and therefore not a violation of equal protection.  The court specifically addressed whether the law was discriminatory against gays:

The plaintiffs contended the statute classifies and discriminates on the bases of gender and sexual orientation while the County argued the same-sex marriage ban does not discriminate on either basis. The court concluded that “[t]he benefit denied by the marriage statute-the status of civil marriage for same-sex couples-is so ‘closely correlated with being homosexual’ as to make it apparent the law is targeted at gay and lesbian people as a class.” Therefore, the court proceeded to analyze the statute’s constitutionality based on sexual-orientation discrimination.

And went on to say:

In its analysis, the court found each factor supported a finding that classification by sexual orientation warranted a heightened scrutiny. The court, citing historical as well as present-day examples, concluded that gay and lesbian people as a group have long been the victim of purposeful and invidious discrimination because of their sexual orientation. There was no evidence that the characteristic that defines the members of this group-sexual orientation-bears any logical relationship to their ability to perform productively in society, either in familial relations or otherwise.

The defense also argued that children raised by gay parents were not in the “optimal situation” at home, so the law was necessary to protect children.  The court responded to this argument that the government has an interest in banning gay marriage because of child-rearing concerns:

The statute, the court found, is under-inclusive because it does not exclude from marriage other groups of parents-such as child abusers, sexual predators, parents neglecting to provide child support, and violent felons-that are undeniably less than optimal parents. If the marriage statute was truly focused on optimal parenting, many classifications of people would be excluded, not merely gay and lesbian people. The statute is also under-inclusive because it does not prohibit same-sex couples from raising children in Iowa. The statute is over-inclusive because not all same-sex couples choose to raise children. The

court further noted that the County failed to show how the best interests of children of gay and lesbian parents, who are denied an environment supported by the benefits of marriage under the statute, are served by the ban, or how the ban benefits the interests of children of heterosexual parents. Thus, the court concluded a classification that limits civil marriage to opposite-sex couples is simply not substantially related to the objective of promoting the optimal environment to raise children.

And the court addressed the state’s role in opposition to gay marriage by religious groups:

Recognizing the sincere religious belief held by some that the “sanctity of marriage” would be undermined by the inclusion of gay and lesbian couples, the court nevertheless noted that such views are not the only religious views of marriage. Other, equally sincere groups have espoused strong religious views yielding the opposite conclusion. These contrasting opinions, the court finds, explain the absence of any religious-based rationale to test the constitutionality of Iowa’s same-sex marriage statute. “Our constitution does not permit any branch of government to resolve these types of religious debates and entrusts to courts the task of ensuring government avoids them . . . . The statute at issue in this case does not prescribe a definition of marriage for religious institutions. Instead, the statute, declares, ‘Marriage is a civil contract’ and then regulates that civil contract . . . . Thus, in pursuing our task in this case, we proceed as civil judges, far removed from the theological debate of religious clerics, and focus only on the concept of civil marriage and the state licensing system that identifies a limited class of persons entitled to secular rights and benefits associated with marriage.

The ruling states that same-sex marriages can begin in Iowa on April 24th.

(PDF of the full opinion here)

The case was a lawsuit filed by six gay couples against Polk County Recorder Timothy Brien.  He refused to issue marriage licenses to the couples on the basis of Iowa’s Defense of Marriage Act.  Judge Robert Hanson ruled on the lawsuit in August 2007 that the law was unconstitutional, but suspended his ruling so the Iowa Supreme Court could review the case.  

There will now be very loud calls for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.  So far the Iowa legislature has blocked any votes from coming up on an amendment.  Democrats control the Iowa house and senate, and Governor Chet Culver is a Democrat.  The 2009 legislative session is expected to end in a few weeks, and like other states is dealing with overwhelming budget problems, so the Democratic leadership has been signalling that there won’t be enough time to deal with any proposed legislation on gay marriage in this session.  That pushes any chance of a public vote on a constitutional amendment to 2012:

Amendments need to be approved by simple majorities in both the House and Senate in two consecutive general assemblies, then must be approved by a simple majority of voters in the next general election. Each general assembly lasts for two years. . . If lawmakers wait until 2009 to start the amendment process, the earliest that a proposed amendment could reach voters is November 2012.

Governor Culver has dodged the issue consistently in the past, saying he would wait for the court’s decision before commenting further.  Today he continued to dodge by responding with:

The decision released this morning by Supreme Court addresses a complicated and emotional issue, one on which Iowans have strong views and opinions on both sides. The next responsible step is to thoroughly review this decision, which I am doing with my legal counsel and the attorney general, before reacting to what it means for Iowa

Culver is up for reelection in 2010.  I expect some discussion of passing a civil-union option instead of allowing gay marriage, in an effort to hold off a constitutional amendment fight.  There was speculation that the Supreme Court may suggest this in their decision but there was no mention of it.  And I’m sure Iowa can expect a thundering herd of Republican presidential candidates competing to show who is outraged the most.  Any movement for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage will get lots of “help” from any Republicans planning to compete in the 2012 caucuses.

But for today — celebrate!  The law and the courts worked like they are supposed to.



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  1. And I believe there is no residency restriction on Iowa marriage licenses, so couples from other states will be able to get married here.

  2. I heard it on MPR driving in to work this morning and celebrated (just a little – he-he) in my car.

  3. very funny… wanda sykes vid…

  4. in a diary over at dkos on this topic by elchip and it works for me…on so many levels.

  5. And it’s brought out the best in the Iowa Legislature (h/t Americablog) and in the editorial page.

    What great news!

    • Robyn on April 4, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    The President respects the decision of the Iowa Supreme Court, and continues to believe that states should make their own decisions when it comes to the issue of marriage. Although President Obama supports civil unions rather than same-sex marriage, he believes that committed gay and lesbian couples should receive protection under the law.

    After initial negative reaction, “protection” was changed to “equal rights.”

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