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Same-sex marriage in Iowa (SSM)

The Iowa Supreme Court ruling
approving SSM on 2009-APR-03

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What were the court's options?

The court's task was to select one of two main options concerning SSM:

bullet To allow all loving couples who wish to commit themselves to mutual support for the rest of their lives to marry each other, or
bullet To stick with the status-quo and continue to make only "traditional marriages" available. These are marriages between people of the same gender. This would result in two classes of citizens in Iowa:
bullet A superior class with full privileges. composed of loving, committed, opposite-sex couples who would be allowed to marry.
bullet A second and lower class of citizens with reduced privileges. These would include those involved in a loving committed same-sex relationship who will not be allowed to marry. They would be viewed by the state as roommates and their children would be regarded as illegitimate.

The court ruling:

Most of the justices on the Iowa Supreme Court are conservatives appointed by a Republican governor. In spite of this, the constitutional aspects to this case forced them to conclude that full marriage equality must be made available to loving, committed same-sex couples. The state constitution itself requires this.

In reaching this conclusion, they compared:

bullet Section 595.2 of the Iowa Code was passed in 1998. It specifically limited marriage to one man and one woman, with
bullet The equal protection clause in the state's constitution. It requires people who are "similarly situated" to be treated equally.

As expected, they found that the two were in conflict. Since the constitution automatically outweighs any piece of legislation, the justices had no choice but to declare the 1998 law unconstitutional. This they did unanimously: 7 to 0. To do otherwise would have been a violation of their oath of office which requires them to uphold the constitution. It seemed to many observers to be a no-brainer.

The court wrote in a summary of their decision:

"The Iowa statute limiting civil marriage to a union between a man and a woman violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. ... Equal protection under the Iowa Constitution is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike. Since territorial times, Iowa has given meaning to this constitutional provision, striking blows to slavery and segregation, and recognizing women's rights. The court found the issue of same-sex marriage comes to it with the same importance as the landmark cases of the past." 1

The justices also wrote in the summary:

"We have a constitutional duty to ensure equal protection of the law. If gay and lesbian people must submit to different treatment without an exceedingly persuasive justification, they are deprived of the benefits of the principle of equal protection upon which the rule of law is founded."

"The concept of equal protection, is deeply rooted in our national and state history, but that history reveals this concept is often expressed far more easily than it is practiced. ..."

"... the County offered no governmental reason underlying the tradition of limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. ... 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. ... there was no evidence to support that excluding gay and lesbian people from civil marriage makes opposite-sex marriage more stable. ... 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."  1

The ruling itself covers 69 pages. It is well worth reading, Pages 63 to 67 may be of particular interest. The section titled "Religious Opposition to Same-sex Marriage" discusses the opposition of faith groups to marriage equality. In their words:

"... the reason for the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from civil marriage left unspoken by the county: religious opposition to same-sex marriage. While unexpressed, religious sentiment most likely motivates many, if not most, opponents of same-sex civil marriage and perhaps even shapes the views of those people who may accept gay and lesbian unions but find the notion of same-sex marriage unsettling. ..." 2, Page 63,64

"In the final analysis, we give respect to the views of all Iowans on the issue of same-sex marriage -- religious or otherwise -- by giving respect to our constitutional principles.  These principles require that the state recognize both opposite-sex and same-sex civil marriage.  Religious doctrine and views contrary to this principle of law are unaffected, and people can continue to associate with the religion that best reflects their views.  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.  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."2, Page 66,67

In Section J of their ruling, titled "Constitutional Infirmity," The Justices state:

"We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective. The legislature has excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification. There is no material fact, genuinely in dispute, that can affect this determination.

We have a constitutional duty to ensure equal protection of the law. Faithfulness to that duty requires us to hold Iowa's marriage statute, Iowa Code section 595.2, violates the Iowa Constitution. To decide otherwise would be an abdication of our constitutional duty. If gay and lesbian people must submit to different treatment without an exceedingly persuasive justification, they are deprived of the benefits of the principle of equal protection upon which the rule of law is founded. Iowa Code section 595.2 denies gay and lesbian people the equal protection of the law promised by the Iowa Constitution." 2, Page 67

They ruled:

Consequently, the language in Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil marriage to a man and a woman must be stricken from the statute, and the remaining statutory language must be interpreted and applied in a manner allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage. 2, Page 69

The court decision surprised a lot of people:

bullet Pete Williams, the justice correspondent at NBC News said: "If you had to ask Americans what the next state would be to approve gay marriage, after Connecticut, after Massachusetts and California--which ultimately repealed it--I think it would surprise many people to say that the answer would be Iowa." 3
bullet OneNewsNow is a fundamentalist Christian news source. They conducted a poll of their readers, asking: "Are you surprised that a state in America's heartland has now legalized homosexual 'marriage'?" Results from 10,975 readers as of 2009-APR-04 were: 61% yes, 39% no. Note that OneNewsNow enclosed the word marriage in quotation marks. This is common practice among social and religious conservatives to show their refusal to accept SSM as a valid form of marriage. We normally delete the quotation marks because we feel that it denigrates loving, committed same-sex couples. We left them in place this time because it was part of a poll, and the precise wording and punctuation of polls can drastically alter the results.

Results of a very unscientific poll:

The Des Moines Register conducted a poll of the visitors to their website. They asked the question "Do you agree with the decision to legalize same-sex marriage?" 5 Results were"

bullet 41% "Yes, I agree"
bullet 59% "No, I disagree"

They added a note to readers at the bottom of the poll: "Clearly this is not a scientific poll ? and it is allowing people to vote multiple times."

It is interesting to note that the total number of votes made on this poll as of 2009-APR-27 was 6.53 million. The total population of Idaho is only 3.00 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 6

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Iowa Supreme Court Rules in Marriage Case," Des Moines Register, 2009-APR-03, at: This is a PDF file.
  2. Full opinion, Case # 07-1499: Katherine Varnum et al. & Timothy Brien, at: This is a PDF file.
  3. Kevin Canessa Jr., "Lesbian & Gay Marriage Legal in Iowa--47 More to Go," DiversityInc, 2009-APR-03, at:
  4. " Poll," 2009-APR-04, at:
  5. Results of the poll are at:
  6. U.S. Census Bureau population data for Iowa is at:

Site navigation: Home > Homosexuality > Same-sex marriage > Menu > Iowa > here

Copyright 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2008-APR-03
Latest update: 2009-APR-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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