Saturday, April 4, 2009

Iowa Supreme Court unanimously rules that state's defense-of-marriage law violates equal protection clause of Iowa constitution

04/03/09 ruling in Varnum v. Brien

Here is my summary of the 69-page ruling.

In 2005, "six same-sex couples in this litigation asked the Polk County recorder to issue marriage licenses to them. The recorder, following the law, refused to issue the licenses, and the six couples have been unable to be married [in Iowa] ... In turning to the courts, the twelve plaintiffs filed this lawsuit in the Polk County District Court. They claimed the statutory same-sex marriage ban violates certain liberty and equality rights under the Iowa Constitution ... The district court concluded the statute was unconstitutional under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Iowa Constitution and granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs. It initially ordered the county recorder to begin processing marriage licenses for same-sex couples, but stayed the order during the pendency of an appeal."

"In this case," the Iowa Supreme Court ruled, "we must decide if our state statute limiting civil marriage to a union between a man and a woman violates the Iowa Constitution, as the district court ruled. On our review, we hold the Iowa marriage statute violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. Therefore, we affirm the decision of the district court."

The Court also ruled that even if a law was enacted to confer all the rights and duties of marriage on same-sex civil unions, that law would not satisfy the state constitution's equal protection clause. In this respect, the Iowa Supreme Court has departed from state Supreme Court rulings in Vermont [Baker v. State, 744 A.2d 864, 887 (Vt. 1999)] and New Jersey [Lewis v. Harris, 908 A.2d 196, 221 (N.J. 2006)], which required the legislature to enact civil union laws as equal protection remedies.

The constitutional issue of equal protection comes to the Court "with the same importance as our landmark cases of the past" overturning slavery and segregation. The Court found that even though same-sex couples can not naturally procreate, same-sex and opposite-sex couples are similarly situated with respect to the purposes of the state's marriage law. The Court also found that the state's marriage law classifies eligibility for marriage according to sexual orientation, even if gays and lesbians may marry members of the opposite sex.

Furthermore, the Court decided that, like the Connecticut Supreme Court [Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health, 957 A.2d 407, 432 (2008)] and the California Supreme Court [In re Marriage Cases, 183 P.3d 384, 442-43(2008)], it must apply heightened scrutiny to whether the state may treat same-sex couples unequally by excluding them from marriage. Distinguishing between stronger and weaker levels of scrutiny - "strict scrutiny" and "intermediate scrutiny," respectively - the Court found that even under the weaker standard of intermediate scrutiny, Iowa's marriage law violates the state consitution's guarantee of equal protection.

Intermediate scrutiny requires the Court to deterimine whether the state has an important purpose in limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples, and whether the law's marrital exclusion of same-sex couples is substantially related to that purpose. The Court considered the government's reasons for excluding same-sex couples from civil marriage. The reasons advanced include:

1. "Maintaining traditional marriage."
2. "Promotion of optimal environment to raise children."
3. "Promotion of procreation."
4. "Promoting stability in opposite-sex relationships."
5. "Conservation of resources."

The Court found that the state constitution's "equal protection clause requires more than has been offered to justify the continued existence of the same-sex marriage ban under the statute." The statutory ban on same-sex miarriage does not substantially further several of the law's stated goals, because the means of the statutory ban falls too short of its goals, or because it overreaches. The ban fars too short of meeting a goal by letting heterosexuals marry even when they lack a trait the goal requires, even as the ban applies to gays and lesbians who have that trait. And it overreaches by excluding same-sex couples whose exclusion the goal does not require.

The Court concluded that the first reason is, in fact, a fallacy of circular reasoning. It is akin to saying that the government must continue to exclude same-sex couples from marriage, based on their sexual orientation, in order to maintain a tradition of such exclusion.

The second reason is an important justification, but excluding same-sex couples from marriage does not substantially advance it. The marriage law does not reach far enough with respect to its child-raising goal, because it allows heterosexual parents to marry who are unsuited to good parenting, even as it also overreaches by denying marriage to same-sex couples who do not wish to raise children. In addition, it does not protect the best interests of children of same-sex couples, and does not benefit the children of opposite-sex couples.

While the third reason also represents an important justification, "the link between exclusion of gay and lesbian people from marriage and increased procreation is far too tenuous to withstand heightened scrutiny." The Court could find no connection between the fourth goal and the marrital exclusion of same-sex couples. And if the fifth goal of banning same-sex marriage is to conserve state resources, the marriage law does not reach far enough, and also overreaches. It does not reach far enough, because "[e]xcluding any group from civil marriage—African-Americans, illegitimates, aliens, even red-haired individuals—would conserve state resources in an equally 'rational' way." And it overreaches, because same-sex couples may not need state resources any more than opposite-sex couples, and yet same-sex couples are not allowed to marry.

Finally, the Court determined that "civil marriage must be judged under our constitutional standards of equal protection and not under religious doctrines or the religious views of individuals." The Court was careful to acknowledge the state constitution's guarantee of religious freedom to solemnize marriages according to religious values.

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