In a unanimous decision, the Iowa Supreme Court held today that an Iowa statute restricting marriage to a male and a female violated the equal protection clause in the state's constitution. The court ordered the restriction removed from the statute, and directed the state to interpret and apply the remaining provisions in a way that will afford "gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage."
This decision marks the first time that a court in a Midwestern state has allowed same-sex marriage, and that is sure to affect the broader debate that has been occurring on the coasts for some time. Legislatures in New England have taken up statutes authorizing gay marriage recently, and the California Supreme Court heard arguments a short while ago in a challenge to Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that passed in November and changed the California constitution to ban gay marriage. The case was brought by six gay and lesbian couples who had applied for marriage licenses, only to have their applications denied because of Iowa Code section 595.2, which provides that "[o]nly a marriage between a male and a female is valid." The plaintiffs moved for summary judgment, and the district court held that the statute was unconstitutional under the due process and equal protection clauses.
The district court originally ordered the county recorder to begin issuing marriage licenses for gay and lesbian applicants, but stayed the order while the appeal was pending.
The Iowa Supreme Court, in affirming the district court, made some interesting rulings that will affect future civil rights cases involving homosexuals in Iowa. Perhaps the most important aspect of the case, besides the actual holding, is the fact that the Court determined that classifications based on sexual orientation deserve at least some form of review higher than rational basis review. Applying factors laid down by the United States Supreme Court, the Iowa Supreme Court determined that homosexual classifications were, at the minimum, quasi-suspect.
Just as interestingly, the Court did not explicitly determine whether homosexual classifications were fully suspect or only quasi-suspect. The court declined to state whether intermediate or strict scrutiny would apply since it found that the statute could survive neither.
Another fascinating element of the Court's decision was its discussion of the religious aspect of the gay marriage debate. The Court noted that the strong religious arguments underlying each of the government's arguments in favor of the statute. The Court expressed its support for the free exercise of religion, and noted that religious organizations could still choose to only perform and recognize unions between a man and a woman.
The Court then drew attention to the differences between secular and religious marriage. While religious groups have this right to limit their definition of marriage, the Court wrote, the government cannot constitutionally enforce the same limitations for civil marriages.
What do you think? Does this distinction go against society's moral fabric, or is it a rational application of the doctrine of separation of church and state to the issue of gay marriage? Will this decision mark the beginning of a series of Midwestern gay marriage victories, or will Iowa voters make short work of it in the next election?
See Also: Iowa Court Voids Gay Marriage Ban (NY Times) Iowa court strikes down same-sex marriage ban (CNN) Iowa high court overturns same-sex marriage ban (JURIST - Paper Chase) Iowa High Court Shoots Down Same-Sex Marriage Ban (WSJ Law Blog) Iowa Supreme Court Strikes Down Gay Marriage Ban (Above the Law) Iowa Gay Marriage Ban Ruled Unconstitutional (Huffington Post)