Analysis: Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage

On April 3, 2009, in a unanimous decision, the Iowa Supreme Court recognized that the Iowa statute limiting civil marriage as a union between man and woman violated the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution that ensures that “all persons similarly situated [are] treated alike.” The Court found the plaintiffs to be similarly situated in comparison to heterosexual couples because they are in committed relationships and because official recognition of their status provides an institutional definition to their fundamental relational rights and responsibilities.

In deciphering what level of scrutiny to apply, the Court looked to four factors to determine whether certain legislative classifications warrant a more demanding constitutional analysis: 1) the history of the invidious discrimination against the class burdened by the legislation; 2) whether the characteristics that distinguish the class indicate a typical class member’s ability to contribute to society; 3) whether the distinguishing characteristic is “immutable,” or beyond the class members’ control; and 4) the political power of the subject class. Eventually, the Court found sexual orientation to be a suspect classification, like race, national origin, or classifications affecting fundamental rights, entitled to a heightened level of scrutiny.

In the end, the six same-sex couples who initiated this action and the same-sex couples who stand to reap the fruits of their determination and courage must be pleased to know that the highest court in Iowa has acknowledged the plight of same-sex couples in this arena: “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.”

As the nation watched, the Iowa Supreme Court reminded us of its “constitutional duty to ensure equal protection of the law,” and that “[i]f 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.” Now, same-sex couples, their children, and their allies from other states, can only hope that their highest courts will one day drink from a similar cup of justice and rule accordingly.

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