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Iowa Supreme Court Not Scared Of Its Decision Over Gay Marriage

April 3, 2009

There is a ton of great reading and insight into the most proper Iowa Supreme Court decision that unanimously provided for gay marriage in that state.  One of the most clear and concise reviews of the decision is the one I post here in its entirety, as I deem it that important as it is so well presented.

[This post summarizes the Iowa Supreme Court marriage decision in Varnum v. Brien.  Another post, updated throughout the day, provides follow-up information about what could happen next and what people are saying about this decision.]

The Iowa motto, “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain,” was noted by Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady in his unanimous opinion for the Court striking down Iowa’s ban on marriage between same-sex couples (PDF).  Today, for the first time ever in this country, a state’s highest court spoke strongly and with one voice in support of marriage equality.

Moreover, the opinion subtly implies that this is as it should be and goes on the offense against cries of judicial activism:

As other Iowans have done in the past when faced with the enforcement of a law that prohibits them from engaging in an activity or achieving a status enjoyed by other Iowans, the twelve plaintiffs turned to the courts to challenge the statute.

Slip op., at 8.  The Court smartly goes on to fully, simply and clearly explain exactly why this decision is nothing extraordinary:

The legislature, in carrying out its constitutional role to make public policy decisions, enacted a law that effectively excludes gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage.  The executive branch of government, in carrying out its role to execute the law, enforced this statute through a county official who refused to issue marriage licenses to six same-sex couples.  These Iowans, believing that the law is inconsistent with certain constitutional mandates, exercised their constitutional right to petition the courts for redress of their grievance.  This court, consistent with its role to interpret the law and resolve disputes, now has the responsibility to determine if the law enacted by the legislative branch and enforced by the executive branch violates the Iowa Constitution.

Slip op., at 13.  This is a court that knows how wildly and inaccurately its decision will be criticized, and it has come to the case prepared.  This is not a court that is scared of its decision; this is a court that has proudly and loudly defended its decision in the opinion itself. This also is a court steadfast in its understanding of what it is here to do:

Our responsibility, however, is to protect constitutional rights of individuals from legislative enactments that have denied those rights, even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, were at one time unimagined, or challenge a deeply ingrained practice or law viewed to be impervious to the passage of time.

Slip op., at 15.  Laying a strong foundation of its purpose and Iowans’ basic right to turn to the courts, Justice Cady then turns to the equal protection question, which he posits that the plaintiffs frame as such: “How can a state premised on the constitutional principle of equal protection justify exclusion of a class of Iowans from civil marriage?” Slip op., at 18

The Court concludes that same-sex couples unallowed to marry in Iowa are similarly situated to the opposite-sex couples allowed to marry:

[F]or purposes of Iowa’s marriage laws, which are designed to bring a sense of order to the legal relationships of committed couples and their families in myriad ways, plaintiffs are similarly situated in every important respect, but for their sexual orientation.  As indicated above, this distinction cannot defeat the application of equal protection analysis through the application of the similarly situated concept because, under this circular approach, all distinctions would evade equal protection review.

Slip op., at 28-29.  The Court, as did Justice O’Connor in her Equal Protection concurrence in Lawrence v. Texas, asserts that Iowa’s marriage ban is a ban based on sexual orientation because “the conduct targeted by this law is conduct that is closely correlated with being homosexual.” Slip op., at 31 (quoting Lawrence, O’Connor, J. concurring).

The Court holds that heightened scrutiny applies to sexual orientation.  Because it finds the marriage ban unconstitutional under intermediate scrutiny, it has no need to determine whether strict scrutiny should apply to classifications based on sexual orientation.

The Court’s harsh analysis of “protecting traditional marriage” is essential reading:

If a simple showing that discrimination is traditional satisfies equal protection, previous successful equal protection challenges of invidious racial and gender classifications would have failed.

Slip op., at 53.  The Court also goes through the other arguments advanced by the state for the marriage ban: “optimal environment to raise children,” “promotion of procreation,” “promotion of stability in opposite-sex relationships” — with the great lines, “[W]e must evaluate whether excluding gay and lesbian people from civil marriage encourages stability in opposite-sex relationships.  The County offers no reasons that it does, and we can find none.” — and “conservation of resources.” It finds them likewise unpersuasive reasons for excluding gay couples from marriage.

The Court concludes:

While the objectives asserted may be important (and many undoubtedly are important), none are furthered in a substantial way by the exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage.  Our equal protection clause requires more than has been offered to justify the continued existence of the same-sex marriage ban under the statute.

Slip op., at 63.  The Court, in a simple and smart act of honesty, goes on to address what it calls “the reason for the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from civil marriage left unspoken by the County:  religious opposition to same-sex marriage.”  The Court holds:

The sanctity of all religious marriages celebrated in the future will have the same meaning as those celebrated in the past.  The only difference is civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law.

Slip op., at 67.  Finally, the Court considers the remedy and quickly dismisses any attempts at civil unions:

Other courts have allowed their state legislatures to create parallel civil institutions for same-sex couples. See Lewis v. Harris, 908 A.2d 196, 221 (N.J. 2006); Baker v. State, 744 A.2d 864, 887 (Vt. 1999).

Iowa Code section 595.2 is unconstitutional because the County has been unable to identify a constitutionally adequate justification for excluding plaintiffs from the institution of civil marriage. A new distinction based on sexual orientation would be equally suspect and difficult to square with the fundamental principles of equal protection embodied in our constitution.

Slip op. at 68.  With that, the unanimous Iowa Supreme Court eliminated the ban to marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples in Iowa, liberties prized and rights maintained.

  1. April 5, 2009 12:15 PM


    Looking again at the text of the ruling I wish to add one more item, in relation to your comment about the idea of civil unions. I find civil unions a non-starter, as did the court in Iowa. I have long commented that civil unions is akin to having some people eat on TV trays in another room from those who get to sit at the dinner table.

    The Iowa court states (p. 68): “Iowa Code section 595.2 is unconstitutional because the County has been unable to identify a constitutionally adequate justification for excluding plaintiffs from the institution of civil marriage. A new distinction based on sexual orientation would be equally suspect and difficult to square with the fundamental principles of equal protection embodied in our constitution.”

  2. April 4, 2009 10:32 AM

    Sorry for the delay in responding.

    No, there is only one type of marriage.

    What the decision says is that the state oversees civil marriages. but does not involve itself with religious marriages.

    Again, sorry for the lapse time in getting to this question.

  3. dragonmage06 permalink
    April 3, 2009 3:20 PM

    Go Iowa!! I love these great judicial decisions that just put it so well.

  4. Thomas J Canton permalink
    April 3, 2009 3:16 PM

    Question and I am not trying to be stupid here. Is the Iowa court saying that there are two different types of marriages here, Religious marriage for man and woman and civil unions for gay couples?

    Seriously, I want to understand this ruling.

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