MOINES, Iowa — Iowa will soon join the ranks of states that allow same-sex marriage, due to a unanimous April 3 ruling by the state’s highest court.
The Iowa Supreme Court said a law limiting marriage to heterosexual couples violates the Iowa Constitution’s equal-protection provisions. The justices said their decision would take effect three weeks from the date it was handed down, meaning same-sex couples will be able to marry in the Hawkeye State beginning April 24.
The court also raised a religious argument. While the sanctity of marriage is very important to many religious believers, the justices said, neither the state nor federal government has any business sanctifying marriage.
“This proposition is the essence of the separation of church and state,” the court said. “As a result, civil marriage must be judged under our constitutional standards of equal protection and not under religious doctrines or the religious views of individuals. This approach does not disrespect or denigrate the religious views of many Iowans who may strongly believe in marriage as a dual-gender union, but considers, as we must, only the constitutional rights of all people, as expressed by the promise of equal protection for all.”
Anticipating just this scenario, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina recently joined the NC4Marriage coalition to support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Legislation allowing North Carolina to vote on such an amendment is buried in committee, with little hope of resurrection.
Justice Mark Cady, writing the Iowa court’s opinion in Varnum v. Brien (No. 07-1499), said the court’s responsibility ”is to protect constitutional rights of individuals from legislative enactments that have denied those rights, even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, were at one time unimagined, or challenge a deeply ingrained practice or law viewed to be impervious to the passage of time.”
“The framers of the Iowa Constitution knew, as did the drafters of the United States Constitution, that ‘times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress,’“ Cady wrote, quoting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision striking down a state sodomy law.
The case began in 2005, after six gay couples were denied marriage licenses by officials in Polk County, where Des Moines is located. They sued, and a lower court found in their favor. County officials appealed to the state’s highest court.
The justices rejected several arguments by county officials defending limiting marriage to heterosexual couples, saying they were not sufficiently rational nor tied to a legitimate government interest to justify treating gay Iowans differently from other citizens.
In regard to one of the chief arguments attorneys for Polk County marshaled — that heterosexual-only marriage benefits children — the court said neither scientific evidence nor reason bear that assertion out.
The opinion noted that its decision does nothing to affect religious marriage. “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,” Cady wrote. “The sanctity of all religious marriages celebrated in the future will have the same meaning as those celebrated in the past. The only difference is civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law. This result is what our constitution requires.”
The decision met with immediate disdain from religious conservatives.
U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) released a statement shortly after the decision was handed down saying the decision was “another example of activist judges molding the Constitution to achieve their personal political ends. Iowa law says that marriage is between one man and one woman. If judges believe the Iowa legislature should grant same-sex marriage, they should resign from their positions and run for office, not legislate from the bench.”
Iowa will join Massachusetts and Connecticut as the only states with legalized same-sex marriage. Legislators in Vermont — which already allows same-sex couples to enter into “civil unions” virtually identical to marriage — recently passed a same-sex marriage bill by wide margins, but the Republican governor has promised a veto.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.)