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Court: Same-Sex Couples Can Marry in Iowa

In a unanimous decision released Friday morning, the Iowa Supreme Court has overturned Iowa’s law limiting marriage rights to opposite-sex couples, clearing the way for same-sex couples to marry across the Hawkeye State beginning later this month.

Justice Mark S. Cady wrote the court’s decision in the landmark case Varnum v. Brien, in which six same-sex couples sued Polk County Recorder Timothy Brien for not issuing them marriage licenses. Polk County Judge Robert Hanson found for the plaintiffs, but he delayed his ruling pending a decision from the Supreme Court.

“On our review, we hold the Iowa marriage statute violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution,” the Supreme Court’s decision said. The decision upheld Polk County Judge Robert Hanson’s initial ruling more than a year ago.

To determine whether Iowa’s marriage law violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution, the court chose to apply the “intermediate scrutiny” test, which is most often applied in gender discrimination cases.

Statute not “substantially related” to “important governmental interest”

“To survive intermediate scrutiny, the law must not only further an important governmental interest and be substantially related to that interest,” says the Iowa Supreme Court’s opinion, “but the justification for the classification must be genuine and must not depend on broad generalizations.”

In the end, justices found that Iowa’s definition of marriage did not pass intermediate scrutiny.

Polk County had argued that Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriage served several important governmental interests, but the court disagreed. They rejected the notion that “maintaining traditional marriage” was “important.”

The court agreed with Polk County’s argument that government has an important interest in promoting an “optimal environment to raise children,” but they concluded that Iowa’s definition of marriage was both “under-inclusive” and “over-inclusive” as it relates to that goal, because the statute disqualifies couples who would be good parents, and it allows two people who would be bad parents to marry, so long as they are not of the same sex. The Iowa law is therefore not “substantially related” to the government’s interest in raising children, the court determined.

The court also rejected Polk County’s claim that excluding same-sex couples from marriage serves the important governmental interest in procreation. “Even if possibly true, the link between exclusion of gay and lesbian people from marriage and increased procreation is far too tenuous to withstand heightened scrutiny,” the court held.

The court also rejected several more “important governmental objectives” presented by Polk County, concluding that “the sexual-orientation-based classification under the marriage statute does not substantially further any of the objectives” that the county presented.

Perhaps most interestingly, the court spent time in its decision addressing religious concerns with same-sex marriage, even though Polk County did not make it an issue in its case. Ultimately, they offered this conclusion:

As a result, civil marriage must be judged under our constitutional standards of equal protection and not under religious doctrines or the religious views of individuals. This approach does not disrespect or denigrate the religious views of many Iowans who may strongly believe in marriage as a dual-gender union, but considers, as we must, only the constitutional rights of all people, as expressed by the promise of equal protection for all. We are not permitted to do less and would damage our constitution immeasurably by trying to do more.

Civil unions likely unconstitional

After deeming Iowa’s civil marriage statute violates individuals’ constitutional rights, the court turned its attention to the appropriate remedy. Justices considered the possibility of a separate classification of civil marriage specifically for same-sex couples — e.g., a “civil union” provision — and rejected it:

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. Consequently, 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.

Rather than throw the issue back to the state legislature to craft a new definition of marriage, the court’s decision requires no additional steps before it is scheduled to take effect in 21 days.

Chase Martyn is the editor of TWI’s sister site, The Iowa Independent.

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