Friday, April 3, 2009

Iowa summary of same sex marriage ruling

40209Varnumsummary.pdf (application/pdf Object)

Iowa Supreme Court Rules in Marriage Case
Des Moines, April 3, 2009— In a unanimous decision, the Iowa Supreme Court
today held that the Iowa statute limiting civil marriage to a union between a man
and a woman violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.
The decision strikes the language from Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil
marriage to a man and a woman. It further directs that the remaining statutory
language be interpreted and applied in a manner allowing gay and lesbian
people full access to the institution of civil marriage.
Today’s ruling resolves an action brought by six same-sex couples who were
refused marriage licenses by the Polk County Recorder. Except for the statutory
restriction that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the
twelve plaintiffs met the legal requirements to marry in Iowa.
On August 30, 2007, the Polk County District Court issued a ruling determining
the statute was unconstitutional under the due process and equal protection
clauses of the Iowa Constitution. The district court initially ordered the county
recorder to begin processing marriage licenses for same-sex couples, but stayed
the order during the pendency of an appeal by the County.
Upon appeal to the supreme court, the parties and numerous amici curiae filed
extensive briefs. The supreme court heard oral argument on December 9, 2008,
and today issued its decision affirming the district court ruling. The court’s
decision becomes effective upon issuance of procedendo, which normally occurs
twenty-one days after the opinion is filed, unless a petition for rehearing is filed.
The entire opinion is available online at
Opinion Summary
The Iowa Supreme Court has the responsibility to determine if a law enacted by
the legislative branch and enforced by the executive branch violates the Iowa
Constitution. The court reaffirmed that a statute inconsistent with the Iowa
Constitution must be declared void, even though it may be supported by strong
and deep-seated traditional beliefs and popular opinion.
News Release
April 3, 2009
Contact: Steve Davis, Court Communications Officer, (515) 725-8058
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.
Equal Protection Principles. Under Iowa’s tripartite system of government,
courts give respect to the legislative process and presume its enactments are
constitutional. The deference afforded to legislative policy-making is manifested
in the level of scrutiny applied to review legislative action. In most equal
protection cases, the court applies a very deferential standard known as the
“rational basis test.” Under this test, “[t]he plaintiff has the heavy burden of
showing the statute unconstitutional and must negate every reasonable basis
upon which the classification may be sustained.” Classifications based on race,
alienage, or national origin and those affecting fundamental rights are, however,
evaluated under a “strict scrutiny” standard. Classifications subject to strict
scrutiny are presumptively invalid and must be narrowly tailored to serve a
compelling governmental interest. The court also recognized that an
intermediate tier has been applied to statutes classifying persons on the basis of
gender or illegitimacy. Under this level of scrutiny, a party seeking to uphold the
statute must demonstrate the challenged classification is substantially related to
the achievement of an important governmental objective.
Similarly Situated People. Prior to proceeding to an application of the equal
protection analysis, the court addressed the County’s request that it apply a
threshold test. Under this threshold test, if the plaintiffs cannot show as a
preliminary matter that they are similarly situated, courts do not further consider
whether their different treatment under a statute is permitted under the equal
protection clause. The County asserts that plaintiffs are not similarly situated to
civilly married heterosexuals because they cannot procreate naturally.
The court rejected the County’s analysis, finding the threshold analysis
advocated by the County results in the avoidance of a full equal protection
analysis. Equal protection demands that laws treat alike all people who are
“similarly situated with respect to the legitimate purposes of the law.” “ ‘[S]imilarly
situated’ cannot mean simply ‘similar in the possession of the classifying trait.’
All members of any class are similarly situated in this respect, and consequently,
any classification whatsoever would be reasonable by this test.” Likewise,
“similarly situated” cannot be interpreted to require plaintiffs be identical in every
way to people treated more favorably by the law. “No two people or groups of
people are the same in every way, and nearly every equal protection claim could
be run aground [under] a threshold analysis” that requires the two groups “be a
mirror image of one another.” Rather, equal protection demands that the law
itself must be equal. It requires that laws treat all those who are similarly situated
with respect to the purposes of the law alike. Thus, the purposes of the law must
be referenced for a meaningful evaluation.
The purpose of Iowa’s marriage law is to provide an institutional basis for
defining the fundamental relational rights and responsibilities of persons in
committed relationships. It also serves to recognize the status of the parties’
committed relationship. In this case, the court concluded, plaintiffs are similarly
situated compared to heterosexual persons; they are in committed relationships
and official recognition of their status provides an institutional basis for defining
their fundamental relational rights and responsibilities.
Classification Undertaken in Iowa Code Section 595.2. Having determined
that the plaintiffs were similarly situated for purposes of equal protection analysis,
the court next addressed the classification undertaken in Iowa’s marriage statute.
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
Appropriate Level of Judicial Scrutiny. The next issue addressed by the court
was whether sexual orientation is a suspect class entitled to a heightened level of
scrutiny beyond rational basis. Four factors utilized in determining whether
certain legislative classifications warrant a more demanding constitutional
analysis were considered: (1) the history of invidious discrimination against the
class burdened by the legislation; (2) whether the characteristics that distinguish
the class indicate a typical class member’s ability to contribute to society; (3)
whether the distinguishing characteristic is “immutable,” or beyond the class
members’ control; and (4) the political power of the subject class.
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. Addressing the issue of immutability, the court
found sexual orientation to be central to personal identity and that its alteration, if
at all, could only be accomplished at the expense of significant damage to the
individual’s sense of self. This, the court concluded, would be wholly
unacceptable for the government to require anyone to do. Finally, the court
found that, despite their securing of significant legal protections against
discrimination in recent years, gay and lesbian people have not become so
politically powerful as to overcome the unfair and severe prejudice that produces
discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Intermediate Scrutiny Standard: Governmental Objectives. Based upon the
above analysis, the court proceeded to examine Iowa’s same-sex marriage ban
under an intermediate scrutiny standard. “To withstand intermediate scrutiny, a
statutory classification must be substantially related to an important
governmental objective.” In determining whether exclusion of gay and lesbian
people from civil marriage is substantially related to any important governmental
objective, the court considered each of the County’s proffered objectives in
support of the marriage statute. The objectives asserted by the County were (1)
tradition, (2) promoting the optimal environment for children, (3) promoting
procreation, (4) promoting stability in opposite-sex relationships, and (5)
preservation of state resources. In considering these objectives, the court
examined whether the objective purportedly advanced by the classification is
important and, if so, whether the governmental objective can fairly be said to be
advanced by the legislative classification.
Maintaining Traditional Marriage. Initially, the court considered the County’s
argument the same-sex marriage ban promotes the “integrity of traditional
marriage” by “maintaining the historical and traditional marriage norm ([as] one
between a man and a woman).” The court noted that, when tradition is offered
as a justification for preserving a statutory scheme challenged on equal
protection grounds, the court must determine whether the reasons underlying the
tradition are sufficient to satisfy constitutional requirements. These reasons, the
court found, must be something other than the preservation of tradition by itself.
“When a certain tradition is used as both the governmental objective and the
classification to further that objective, the equal protection analysis is transformed
into the circular question of whether the classification accomplishes the
governmental objective, which objective is to maintain the classification.” Here,
the County offered no governmental reason underlying the tradition of limiting
marriage to heterosexual couples, so the court proceeded to consider the other
reasons advanced by the County for the legislative classification.
Promotion of Optimal Environment to Raise Children. The second of the
County’s proffered governmental objectives involves promoting child rearing by a
father and a mother in a marital relationship, the optimal milieu according to
some social scientists. Although the court found support for the proposition that
the interests of children are served equally by same-sex parents and oppositesex
parents, it acknowledged the existence of reasoned opinions that dualgender
parenting is the optimal environment for children. Nonetheless, the court
concluded the classification employed to further that goal—sexual orientation—
did not pass intermediate scrutiny because it is significantly under-inclusive and
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.
Promotion of Procreation. Next, the court addressed the County’s argument
that endorsement of traditional civil marriage will result in more procreation. The
court concluded the County’s argument is flawed because it fails to address the
required analysis of the objective: whether exclusion of gay and lesbian
individuals from the institution of civil marriage will result in more procreation.
The court found no argument to support the conclusion that a goal of additional
procreation would be substantially furthered by the exclusion of gays and
lesbians from civil marriage.
Promoting Stability in Opposite-Sex Relationships. The County also
asserted that the statute promoted stability in opposite-sex relationships. The
court acknowledged that, while the institution of civil marriage likely encourages
stability in opposite-sex relationships, there was no evidence to support that
excluding gay and lesbian people from civil marriage makes opposite-sex
marriage more stable.
Conservation of Resources. Finally, the court rejected the County’s argument
that banning same-sex marriages in a constitutional fashion conserves state
resources. The argument in support of the same-sex marriage ban is based on a
simple premise: civilly married couples enjoy numerous governmental benefits,
so the state’s fiscal burden associated with civil marriage is reduced if less
people are allowed to marry. While the ban on same-sex marriage may
conserve some state resources, so would excluding any number of identifiable
groups. However, under intermediate scrutiny the sexual-orientation-based
classification must substantially further the conservation-of-resources objective.
Here again, the court found it was over- and under-inclusive and did not
substantially further the suggested governmental interest.
Religious Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage. Having addressed and rejected
each specific interest articulated by the County, the court addressed one final
ground believed to underlie the same-sex marriage debate—religious opposition.
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.”
Constitutional Infirmity. In concluding the marriage statute is constitutionally
infirm, the court stated:
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.
We have a constitutional duty to ensure equal protection of
the law. Faithfulness to that duty requires us to hold Iowa’s
marriage statute, Iowa Code section 595.2, violates the Iowa
Constitution. To decide otherwise would be an abdication of our
constitutional duty. If gay and lesbian people must submit to
different treatment without an exceedingly persuasive justification,
they are deprived of the benefits of the principle of equal protection
upon which the rule of law is founded. Iowa Code section 595.2
denies gay and lesbian people the equal protection of the law
promised by the Iowa Constitution.

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