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Iowa Court Legalizes Gay Marriage In Surprise Verdict

By L. K. Regan

In a surprise move, the Iowa Supreme Court has unanimously decided that the state's 1998 ban on same-sex marriage constituted discrimination. According to the court, "The language in Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil marriage to a man and a woman must be stricken from the statute, and the remaining statutory language must be interpreted and applied in a manner allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage." Beginning today, gay marriage would appear to be legal in Iowa.

The justices' argument hinges on the equal protection clause of the Iowa constitution which, like the US constitution, promises all citizens equal protection under the law. The decision several times states the importance of this principle as the foundation of the justices' ruling: "We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective. The legislature has excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification. There is no material fact, genuinely in dispute, that can affect this determination."

The justices' argument was a sharp rejoinder to standard arguments for the state's interest in protecting a limited definition of marriage. As the opinion says, "We begin with the County's argument that the goal of the same-sex marriage ban is to ensure children will be raised only in the optimal milieu." The justices quickly put to rest the notion that anti-same-sex marriage laws are a fair way to foster such a milieu: "The civil marriage statute 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 justices also pointed out the most basic fact: that the same sex couples who brought suit against the state law were in every way other than sexual orientation exactly like opposite sex couples. As the opinion states: "Therefore, with respect to the subject and purposes of Iowa’s marriage laws, we find that the plaintiffs are similarly situated compared to heterosexual persons. Plaintiffs are in committed and loving relationships, many raising families, just like heterosexual couples. Moreover, official recognition of their status provides an institutional basis for defining their fundamental relational rights and responsibilities, just as it does for heterosexual couples. Society benefits, for example, from providing same- sex couples a stable framework within which to raise their children and the power to make health care and end-of-life decisions for loved ones, just as it does when that framework is provided for opposite-sex couples."

Given the rights and protections particular to married couples, the justices also rejected the idea of a "separate-but-equal" category of same-sex civil unions: "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. This record, our independent research, and the appropriate equal protection analysis do not suggest the existence of a justification for such a legislative classification that substantially furthers any governmental objective." In short, the court says, there will be marriage for all.

Already, opponents of same-sex marriage are lining up at microphones to deplore the justices' ruling. But the opinion is careful to address one key complaint and frequent scare-tactic: the idea that churches will now be forced to perform gay marriages against their will. As the justices write, there is a clear distinction between civil and religious marriage: "A religious denomination can still define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and a marriage ceremony performed by a minister, priest, rabbi, or other person ordained or designated as a leader of the person’s religious faith does not lose its meaning as a sacrament or other religious institution. 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. This result is what our constitution requires."

It will be several weeks before marriage licenses will be available for same sex couples in Iowa as there is a 21-day appeals waiting period. But the Polk County Attorney has said that he does not intend to appeal the verdict, meaning that no party with legal standing in the case plans to appeal and, since the case was a challenge to the state rather than the federal constitution, no appeal to the US Supreme Court can be brought. All of which means that in about a month, there will be gay marriages in Iowa. Des Moines, here we come!