Archive for May 2, 2009
Iowa Supreme Court Decision on Same Sex Marriage Explained
Reprinted with permission from the Prairie Progressive
In the Government's Interest
by Nate Willems
On April 3rd the Iowa Supreme Court struck down a state law defining civil marriage as only between one man and one woman. The Court ruled that the law does not comply with the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. Since the Court issued its opinion, I have been inundated with thousands of e-mails, many from constituents but the vast majority from individuals across Iowa and across the U.S. Opponents of gay marriage advocate for passage of House Joint Resolution 6, a proposed amendment to the Iowa Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman; supporters of the Court’s decision ask that the Legislature simply let the decision stand.
The case in question, Varnum v Brien, has a sixty-nine page decision that I strongly urge any interested individual to read. As a matter of constitutional law, the Iowa Supreme Court made a compelling case and the verdict was unanimous. There are three degrees of scrutiny courts use in analyzing an equal protection challenge. “Strict Scrutiny” is utilized for examining laws that treat individuals differently on the basis of race or national origin. “Intermediate Scrutiny” is used for laws that differentiate on the basis of gender or illegitimacy. “Rational Basis” is used for laws that treat differently individuals who are not in any protected class and is very deferential to the Legislature.
There are four factors a court may consider in determining whether some form of heightened scrutiny – something more than “Rational Basis” – is appropriate: 1) history of discrimination against the class; 2) whether the characteristics that distinguish the class reflect on the individuals’ ability to contribute to society; 3) whether the characteristic is immutable or changeable; 4) the degree of political powerlessness of the class. The Supreme Court found that it is very clear that gay men and women have been discriminated against in the past and have every ability to contribute positively to society. The Court did not attempt to decide whether homosexuality is an inherent quality such as skin color, but did recognize that sexual orientation is highly resistant to change. The Court further noted that no Legislature in the nation had passed a statute allowing same sex couples to marry as evidence that homosexuals have had some degree of political powerlessness.
Having concluded that it was appropriate to utilize at least an “Intermediate Scrutiny” analysis for determining whether Iowa’s law complies with the equal protection clause, the question becomes: Does the law further an important government interest and is the law substantially related to that interest? Those defending the law argued five government interests: 1) promotion of traditional marriage; 2) promoting healthy environments for raising children; 3) promotion of procreation; 4) promotion of stability in civil marriage relationships; 5) conservation of State resources.
In dismissing the first proposed government interest, the Court failed to find any governmental reason, only the promotion of tradition for tradition’s sake. That is, if the law only allows heterosexual marriage for the purpose of promoting traditional heterosexual marriage, the logic is circular. The Court recognized that promoting healthy environments for the raising of children is an important government interest, but this justification also fails because the law was not substantially related to that interest. The ban on same-sex marriage was found to be both under-inclusive (it does not prohibit child abusers or violent felons from marrying) and over-inclusive (not all same sex couples want to raise children).
The Court went on to dismiss the remaining justifications. The promotion of procreation as a government interest was found to be too tenuous as gays and lesbians do have the ability to procreate and there was no evidence that the law prohibiting them from marrying has led to greater procreation than otherwise would take place. Similarly, the Court dismissed the idea that same sex couples inherently have less stable relationships for lack of evidence. Lastly, the Court acknowledged that having more married couples would lead to more people utilizing tax and other financial benefits from the State, but simply found this to be a less than compelling government interest.
In conclusion, the Court reiterated that no church is required to recognize marriages between same sex couples, but that the law defines itself as a civil, and not a religious, contract. So, its ruling is confined to legal rights bestowed upon couples by the State through civil marriage. Finally, the Court warned that any future law that creates new distinctions based on sexual orientation will be equally suspect.
I do not support House Joint Resolution 6 because I do not think it is a good idea to amend the Iowa Constitution for the explicit purpose of discriminating against a group of Iowans and taking away their constitutional rights. If a legislator proposes some different constitutional change I will consider it, but a proposal must do something other than simply attempt to put into the constitution a law that has been declared unconstitutional.
No church will be required to perform or recognize same sex marriages, but all couples will have equal legal rights in Iowa.
Nate Willems of Lisbon represents District 29 in the Iowa House
From the spring 2009 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa's oldest progressive
newsletter, available only in hard copy for $12/yr. to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City
of The Prairie Progressive are Jeff Cox and Dave Leshtz.