Iowa Supreme Court Unanimously Upholds Same-Sex Marriage

Many were stunned by the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling (see the text of the ruling here) on Friday that unanimously upheld a lower court ruling overturning the state’s 1998 Defense of Marriage Act and allowing same-sex couples to marry. After all, this was not a liberal, coastal state, but a state right in the heart of the Midwest.

In an opinion written by Justice Mark Cady, the court found:

We are firmly convinced that 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. (See p. 67 of the ruling)

The decision also apparently ruled out the possibility of civil unions as an alternative to 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.” (p. 68)

The court also noted that its decision would not force religious leaders who do not believe in same-sex marriages to perform such services, or diminish the freedom of people to choose to believe that same-sex marriages are somehow less than opposite-sex marriagesor that they should not be allowed at all. It was simply protecting the rights of all Iowans to be treated equally in matters of civil marriages. In the court’s words,

[W]e give respect to the views of all Iowans on the issue of same-sex marriage—religious or otherwise—by giving respect to our constitutional principles. These principles require that the state recognize both opposite-sex and same-sex civil marriage. Religious doctrine and views contrary to this principle of law are unaffected, and people can continue to associate with the religion that best reflects their views. 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. (pp. 66-67)

The case, Varnum v. Brien, began when six gay and lesbian couples filed suit in Polk County in 2005 after they were refused marriage licenses. In 2007, Polk County Judge Robert Hanson ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriages violated the rights of same-sex couples to equal treatment under the law, but the ruling was quickly stayed until the state Supreme Court rendered its decision. The Supreme Court’s ruling will go into effect on April 24, making Iowa the fourth state in the nation to allow same-sex marriages, and the third to currently allow gay marriage. (Connecticut and Massachusetts also permit same-sex marriages, and California briefly legalized gay marriage, although a constitutional amendment banning it was narrowly passed by voters in November 2008.) As a recent Des Moines Register article observes, “Iowa has no residency requirement for marriage licenses, which virtually assures a rush of applications from out-of-state visitors.” Many states have laws that prohibit them from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states, however.

Perhaps coming from a state in the nation’s heartland, the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling will have an even greater effect than similar decisions in Massachusetts or California. The court is right that a gay couple’s decision to enter into a religious or social agreement does not preclude a straight couple’s right to do so. People should be allowed to live their lives as they please, so long as they do not infringe on the equal right of others to do the same. Same-sex couples are free to formalize their commitments to each other, and others are free to believe what they want to about gay marriage, but they do not have the right to prevent same-sex couples from getting married any more than same-sex couples have the right to prevent opposite-sex couples from getting married. That is as it should be. Maybe now more states will come around to this view, too.

For more on same-sex marriage, see my op-ed in the Orange County Register from last August and my policy brief on California’s Proposition 8, which, unfortunately, ended up re-banning gay marriage in the state last November.