JISHOU, HUNAN — The decision by the Iowa Supreme Court to clear the way for same-sex marriage in that state is big news, but the masterfully clear logic of the court’s ruling is even more impressive. It is worth reading the 69-page ruling, even if you are not a student of the law, just to see how keen minds operate.
In addition, the court clearly restated the premise of the separation of church and state enshrined in both the Iowa and U.S. Constitutions. Christian Dominionists are bound to be unhappy about that part of the opinion, since they insist the USA is a “Christian nation” founded on Christian principles.
Interestingly, the decision was unanimous. Of the seven justices, two are Republican appointees and the rest are Democratic appointees. Had the decision been split 5-2, critics could cry “liberal bias” and “activist judges.” A unanimous ruling speaks volumes for the power of the law.
The issue of course was whether the civil marriage statute in Iowa’s books discriminated against same-sex couples who wish to marry. The Court carefully examined whether same-sex couples were “similar situated” as opposite-sex couples, that is, are their circumstances the same? And does the law as worded specifically create two classifications of couples to be regulated by law?
Same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples are similarly situated, but for their sexual orientation, the Court held.
… the similarly situated requirement cannot possibly be interpreted to require plaintiffs to 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 run aground onto the shoals of a threshold analysis if the two groups needed to be a mirror image of one another. Such a threshold analysis would hollow out the constitution’s promise of equal protection.
… In other words, to truly ensure equality before the law, the equal protection guarantee requires that laws treat all those who are similarly situated with respect to the purposes of the law alike.
Later in the ruling, the Court states:
… Plaintiffs are in committed and loving relationships, many raising families, just like heterosexual couples. Moreover, official recognition of their status provides an institutional basis for defining their fundamental relational rights and responsibilities, just as it does for heterosexual couples. Society benefits, for example, from providing same-sex couples a stable framework within which to raise their children and the power to make health care and end-of-life decisions for loved ones, just as it does when that framework is provided for opposite-sex couples.
The very same arguments advocates of same-sex marriage have been saying for years.
The court then found that existing civil marriage laws are specifically worded to differentiate between same-sex and opposite-sex couples, “placing civil marriage outside the realistic reach of gay and lesbian individuals” by forcing them to marry someone of the opposite sex. Such wording essentially discriminates against gay and lesbians, excluding them from a limited class of citizens intending marriage, the Court held.
Pointing out that same-sex marriage offends some religious beliefs, the Court then stated categorically it had to hold itself separate from such debates. The law in question regulates “civil marriages,” placing a secular question before the Court.
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 civil marriage. … State government can have no religious views, either directly or indirectly, expressed through its legislation. … This proposition is the essence of the separation of church and state.
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 strong 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. We are not permitted to do less and would damage our constitution immeasurably by trying to do more.
As notable as the decision to enable same-sex marriages in Iowa is, this particular section clearly reiterates one of the fundamental principles of United States law. Despite all allegations to the contrary, the US has a secular law system. Religious principles and beliefs are not enshrined or regulated or proscribed by the Constitutions of Iowa or the nation. Thus, the religious beliefs of one segment of the population cannot legally be imposed as civil law on everyone else.
The Iowa Court was bold in bringing under its public scrutiny the “unspoken” religious basis for the Iowa marriage statute. One wonders how many other state Supreme Courts will be as brave or as clear.