Monday, April 6, 2009

Summary of Iowa Marriage Decision

I've had a chance to read through the Iowa Supreme Court's decision declaring the state's law limiting marriage to male-female couples unconstitutional. The full text of the decision can be found here (PDF). My items of note are as follows. (All quotations from the decision).

1. Heterosexual and Gay/Lesbian Couples Are "Similarly Situated"

The County (the side seeking to uphold the discriminatory law) offered 5 reasons to support restricting marriage to male-female couples. The Court summarized these reasons:

"The first three interests are broadly related to the advancement of child rearing. Specifically, the objectives centered on promoting procreation, promoting child rearing by a mother and a father within a marriage, and promoting stability in an opposite-sex relationship to raise and nurture children. The fourth interest raised by the County addressed the conservation of state resources, while the final reason concerned the governmental interest in promoting the concept and integrity of the traditional notion of marriage.

To support these arguments, the County's testimony was in the form of various individual's opinions that same-sex marriage would result in harm to children and to the institution of marriage. In contrast, the Court observed that the plaintiffs (the marriage equality side) presented evidence showing that "most scientific research has repudiated the commonly assumed notion that children need opposite-sex parents or biological parents to grow into well-adjusted adults" and "almost every professional group that has studied the issue indicates children are not harmed when raised by same-sex couples, but to the contrary, benefit from them." And furthermore:

"Plaintiffs presented an abundance of evidence and research, confirmed by our independent research, supporting the proposition that the interests of children are served equally by same-sex parents and opposite-sex parents. On the other hand, we acknowledge the existence of reasoned opinions that dual-gender parenting is the optimal environment for children. These opinions, while thoughtful and sincere, were largely unsupported by reliable scientific studies."

With these facts in mind, the Court decided the case using an equal protection analysis. Iowa's equal protection clause is similar to the one found in the US Constitution in that the state's "constitutional promise of equal protection 'is
essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated
alike.'" The County argued that gay and lesbian couples are not "similarly situated" to heterosexual couples because they cannot "procreate naturally" and that, therefore, justifies treating the couples differently.

While true that same-sex couples cannot procreate together, the court notes that the "similarly situated" requirement does not require the two groups at issue to be "identical." Such a requirement, in fact, would hollow out equal protection guarantees. If two groups of people were identical, there would be no basis for making a group distinction in the first place. Instead, equal protection requires that "laws treat all those who are similarly situated with respect to the purposes of the law alike." In Iowa, the purpose of civil marriage is to be a "partnership to which both partners bring their financial resources as well as their individual energies and efforts" serving "to recognize the status of the parties’ committed relationship" for "the comfort and happiness of the parties to the marriage contract."

Thus, and this is important, Iowa law has no legal purpose, requirement, or expectation restricting marriage only to couples able to procreate together. Therefore, gay/lesbian and heterosexual couples are similarly situated for purposes of civil marriage laws. The Court then applied a heightened level of scrutiny to Iowa's discriminatory law and found the law to be unconstitutional under Iowa's equal protection clause.

2. But... Gays and Lesbians Already Can Get Married (to people of the opposite sex of course)

In addition to its equal protection analysis, the Supreme Court addressed an oft-used argument that "marriage defenders" make. See, many "marriage defenders" deny that marriage laws are discriminatory. They argue that gay people are already free to get married, they just have to marry someone of the opposite sex. I think people think they are being clever when they make this argument. At best, they are ignorant as to what being gay is and means. At worst, they're being disingenuous.

In any event, the Court addresses this "argument" well:

"It is true the marriage statute does not expressly prohibit gay and lesbian persons from marrying; it does, however, require that if they marry, it must be to someone of the opposite sex. Viewed in the complete context of marriage, including intimacy, civil marriage with a person of the opposite sex is as unappealing to a gay or lesbian person as civil marriage with a person of the same sex is to a heterosexual. Thus, the right of a gay or lesbian person under the marriage statute to enter into a civil marriage only with a person of the opposite sex is no right at all."

Here's a scenario to help "marriage defenders" replace themselves with the other, since they are often utterly unwilling and unable to regularly do so. Imagine we live in a world in which people may only legally marry a person of the same-sex. What "marriage defenders" argue is akin to someone in this Other World arguing, "This law is not discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation. Heterosexuals can get married. They just have to marry someone of the same sex, like the rest of us." Is the option of remaining legally single forever versus marrying someone you are not romantically or sexually attracted to a real choice? I think not.

3. Separation of Powers

The Court here also took the important step of spelling out the concept of separation of powers. Because it is a given for "marriage defenders" to cry Judicial Tyranny Is Running Amok whenever a higher court declares an anti-gay law to be unconstitutional, this reminder is necessary:

"This case, as with most other civil rights actions before it, implicates these broad constitutional principles of governing. The legislature, in carrying out its constitutional role to make public policy decisions, enacted a law that effectively excludes gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage. The executive branch of government, in carrying out its role to execute the law, enforced this statute through a county official who refused to issue marriage licenses to six same-sex couples. These Iowans, believing that the law is inconsistent with certain constitutional mandates, exercised their constitutional right to petition the courts for redress of their grievance. This court, consistent with its role to interpret the law and resolve disputes, now has the responsibility to determine if the law enacted by the legislative branch and enforced by the executive branch violates the Iowa Constitution. 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" (emphasis added).

Many "marriage defenders" are either ignorant, or blatantly disrespectful, of the role that each branch of the government plays in our democracy. In their eyes, the court exists to rubber stamp decisions of the legislative and executive branches (especially when it comes to decisions about gay rights). Yet a judicial branch that acted like a ditto machine would be pointless. There would be no "check" involved to ensure that laws were enacted in accordance with constitutional principles. Besides, if The People (tm) of Iowa do not like this decision, they are free to carry out their own check on the government via amending the state constitution. It's all a part of the process and, contrary to the hyperventilations of "marriage defenders," is in no way evidence of "tyranny." Frankly, we should be grateful that we have peaceful ways to resolve such disputes.

Historically, and "marriage defenders" are no exception, The People have tended to object not to the power of judicial review, but only to its exercise in certain instances. I just don't think many "marriage defenders" are capable of making such a distinction.

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