Saturday, April 4, 2009

Details on the Iowa Supreme Court marriage case

First, I must express once again how ecstatic I am about the Varnum v. Brien ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court, which has ruled that gay couples may marry under Iowa state law. I had been anxiously holding my breath since I found out the ruling would be announced on Friday morning. Believe me, there was a huge sigh of relief after hearing the positive outcome!

I have read the summary document for the court's decision and found it quite good at explaining the general outline for how and why the court made its current decision. I will quote some of the 7-page document here:

1.0 Responsibility of the court:
"The Iowa Supreme Court has the responsibility to determine if a law enacted by the legislative branch and enforced by the executive branch violates the Iowa Constitution. The court reaffirmed that 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."

2.0 Equal protection under the law
Equal protection under the Iowa Constitution “is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike.”

2.1 How does the judiciary treat the legislature?
"Under Iowa’s tripartite system of government, courts give respect to the legislative process and presume its enactments are constitutional. The deference afforded to legislative policy-making is manifested in the level of scrutiny applied to review legislative action."

2.2 What standard is normally used to scrutinize the legislature?
"In most equal protection cases, the court applies a very deferential standard known as the “rational basis test.”"

2.3 In what cases is there tougher scrutiny?
"Classifications based on race, alienage, or national origin and those affecting fundamental rights are, however, evaluated under a “strict scrutiny” standard. Classifications subject to strict scrutiny are presumptively invalid and must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest."

2.4 Are there other types of scrutiny?
"The court also recognized that an intermediate tier has been applied to statutes classifying persons on the basis of gender or illegitimacy. Under this level of scrutiny, a party seeking to uphold the statute must demonstrate the challenged classification is substantially related to the achievement of an important governmental objective."

3.0 Application of equal protection is for "similarly situated" people: are gay people "similarly situated" as heterosexuals for the purposes of civil marriage?
"‘[S]imilarly situated’ cannot mean simply ‘similar in the possession of the classifying trait.’ All members of any class are similarly situated in this respect, and consequently, any classification whatsoever would be reasonable by this test.” Likewise, “similarly situated” cannot be interpreted to require plaintiffs be identical in every way to people treated more favorably by the law. “No two people or groups of people are the same in every way, and nearly every equal protection claim could be run aground [under] a threshold analysis” that requires the two groups “be a mirror image of one another.” Rather, equal protection demands that the law itself must be equal. It requires that laws treat all those who are similarly situated with respect to the purposes of the law alike."

4.0 Does sexual orientation warrant heightened scrutiny by the court?
"The next issue addressed by the court was whether sexual orientation is a suspect class entitled to a heightened level of scrutiny beyond rational basis. Four factors utilized in determining whether certain legislative classifications warrant a more demanding constitutional analysis were considered. ... In its analysis, the court found each factor supported a finding that classification by sexual orientation warranted a heightened scrutiny. ... Based upon the above analysis, the court proceeded to examine Iowa’s same-sex marriage ban under an intermediate scrutiny standard."

5.0 Addressing issues raised by plantiff as to why to exclude gays from marriage

5.1 Maintaining traditional marriage
"The court considered the County’s argument the same-sex marriage ban promotes the “integrity of traditional marriage” by “maintaining the historical and traditional marriage norm ([as] one between a man and a woman).” The court noted that, when tradition is offered as a justification for preserving a statutory scheme challenged on equal protection grounds, the court must determine whether the reasons underlying the tradition are sufficient to satisfy constitutional requirements. These reasons, the
court found, must be something other than the preservation of tradition by itself. [emphasis added] ... Here, the County offered no governmental reason underlying the tradition of limiting marriage to heterosexual couples ..."

5.2 Promotion of optimal environment to raise children
"The second of the County’s proffered governmental objectives involves promoting child rearing by a father and a mother in a marital relationship, the optimal milieu according to some social scientists. ... The statute, the court found, is under-inclusive because it does not exclude from marriage other groups of parents—such as child abusers, sexual predators, parents neglecting to provide child support, and violent felons—that are undeniably less than optimal parents. ... The statute is also under-inclusive because it does not prohibit same-sex couples from raising children in Iowa. The statute is over-inclusive because not all same-sex couples choose to raise children. The court further noted that the County failed to show how the best interests of children of gay and lesbian parents, who are denied an environment supported by the benefits of marriage under the statute, are served by the ban, or how the ban benefits the interests of children of heterosexual parents."

5.3 Promotion of procreation
"Next, the court addressed the County’s argument that endorsement of traditional civil marriage will result in more procreation. The court concluded the County’s argument is flawed because it fails to address the required analysis of the objective: whether exclusion of gay and lesbian individuals from the institution of civil marriage will result in more procreation. The court found no argument to support the conclusion that a goal of additional procreation would be substantially furthered by the exclusion of gays and lesbians from civil marriage."

5.4 Promoting stability in opposite-sex relationships
"The County also asserted that the statute promoted stability in opposite-sex relationships. The court acknowledged that, while the institution of civil marriage likely encourages stability in opposite-sex relationships, there was no evidence to support that excluding gay and lesbian people from civil marriage makes opposite-sex
marriage more stable."

5.5 Conservation of state resources
"Finally, the court rejected the County’s argument that banning same-sex marriages in a constitutional fashion conserves state resources. The argument in support of the same-sex marriage ban is based on a simple premise: civilly married couples enjoy numerous governmental benefits, so the state’s fiscal burden associated with civil marriage is reduced if less people are allowed to marry. ... However, under intermediate scrutiny the sexual-orientation-based classification must substantially further the conservation-of-resources objective."

6.0 Religious opposition to same-sex marriage
"Recognizing the sincere religious belief held by some that the “sanctity of marriage” would be undermined by the inclusion of gay and lesbian couples, the court nevertheless noted that such views are not the only religious views of marriage. Other, equally sincere groups have espoused strong religious views yielding the opposite conclusion. These contrasting opinions, the court finds, explain the absence of any religious-based rationale to test the constitutionality of Iowa’s same-sex marriage statute. “Our constitution does not permit any branch of government to resolve these types of religious debates and entrusts to courts the task of ensuring government avoids them . . . . The statute at issue in this case does not prescribe a definition of marriage for religious institutions. Instead, the statute, declares, ‘Marriage is a civil contract’ and then regulates that civil contract . . . . Thus, in pursuing our task in this case, we proceed as civil judges, far removed from the theological debate of religious clerics, and focus only on the concept of civil marriage and the state licensing system that identifies a limited class of persons entitled to secular rights and benefits associated with marriage.""

For those of you who would like to read the documents firsthand, these can be obtained at the following link: Iowa Supreme Court, Varnum v. Brien.

As some closing remarks, I particularly liked to see the justices address the religious opposition. They clearly state that 1) some religions are opposed, while others are supported ... usually we only hear about those who are opposed, and 2) marriage as licensed by the state is a civil institution and does not pretend to impose upon or be imposed upon by religious groups.

(Day 295)

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