Iowa Supreme Court strikes down Defense of Marriage Act

The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a lower-court ruling that struck down Iowa's 1998 Defense of Marriage Act. Various legal experts who watched the oral arguments in December expected the plaintiffs in Varnum v Brien to prevail, but it is still very welcome news for marriage equality supporters across the country.

High traffic has been interfering with the Iowa Supreme Court's server (Bleeding Heartland's too!), but the Iowa Politics site has created pdf files you can download if you want to read the Supreme Court's summary and/or the full text of the opinion.

Rallies celebrating the freedom to marry in Iowa will take place in many locations today. Go to the One Iowa website for event details. Many business owners will also be celebrating today, because the wedding and hospitality industries will benefit from a wave of same-sex marriages across the state.

State budget revenues will increase as well. Last year the Williams Institute at UCLA law school considered the economic impact of allowing same-sex couples to marry in Iowa and concluded:

Using the best data available, we estimate that allowing same-sex couples to marry will result in a net gain of approximately $5.3 million each year for the State. This net impact will be the result of savings in expenditures on state means-tested public benefit programs and an increase in state income and sales tax revenue.

The Republican Party of Iowa will surely be leading a charge to overturn the Supreme Court ruling, but Iowa is not California. It's a lot harder to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot here. An amendment banning gay marriage would need to be approved by two consecutive legislative sessions (the 2009/2010 session and the 2011/2012 session) before going to the public in a general-election referendum. So, the earliest Iowa voters would be able to weigh in on this issue would be in November 2011.

I heard on Iowa Public Radio this morning that legislative leaders say there is no time to consider an amendment on marriage this year. The legislative session is scheduled to end within a couple of weeks, and the "funnel" date by which bills had to clear a legislative committee passed nearly a month ago.

The 56-44 Democratic majority in the Iowa House may or may not be solid on this issue, but I believe that the 32-18 Democratic majority in the Iowa Senate will be enough to block any Proposition 8-style constitutional amendment during the 2010 session. (UPDATE: After reading today's joint statement from Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy, I am convinced that a constitutional amendment on this issue is going nowhere in 2010.)

Even if Republicans made electoral gains on this issue and picked up seats in November 2010, they would have to get a constitutional amendment through the 2011-2012 legislature and the 2013-2014 legislature before the amendment could get on the ballot. That would mean Iowans could vote on same-sex marriage rights in November 2013. By that time I believe support for gay marriage will have grown substantially.

No doubt we will soon see new Iowa polls on the marriage equality issue. I'll be interested to see whether the coverage of the Varnum v. Brien case has moved public opinion since a Big Ten poll in October 2008 found that 28 percent of Iowans supported gay marriage, with another 30 percent in favor of same-sex civil unions.

In February I posted some links on making the case for marriage equality, which may be helpful if you have friends or relatives who are upset by the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling. An important point to stress is that this judgment relates to civil marriage. It does not require any clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages, or any church to recognize them.

Also, the Iowa Supreme Court can't force anyone to approve of gay marriages. As I wrote in December,

Most of us can think of marriages we don't approve of. Depending on your values, that could be 17-year-olds who dropped out of high school, a couple who are several decades apart in age, a professor marrying a former student, an impulsive remarriage after someone was widowed, an "open marriage" between non-monogamous heterosexuals, or a person who appears to have married a rich person for money. I know people who disapprove of my own marriage, because my husband is not Jewish. But no one would dispute that all of these marriages are valid under state law.

In an ideal world, I would want everyone to accept all loving couples and not be judgmental, but I think we need people to understand that they can still disapprove of gay marriage, even if it is legal. Widespread tolerance of gay relationships would be great, but it is not essential.

Please share your thoughts on the legal and political implications of today's ruling. My overwhelming feeling is that it's a great day to be an Iowan!

I'll put up a post later today with early reaction to the ruling.

  • I am proud of the Iowa Supreme Court

    They did their jobs and upheld the law.  Cue the wingnuts claiming that they are "activist judges" because they didn't ignore the Iowa Constitution.

    Steve King should be flinging spittle at a microphone any time now.

  • Great News!

    I am really excited about it - especially given that it was unanimous, and used a heightened scrutiny standard.

    The Massachusetts (where I now live) ruling from 5 years ago was a 4-3 decision that decided there was no rational basis for outlawing homosexual marriage.  While that sounds like a stronger statement in favor of equality, it actually means that in the future any law against homosexuals that can be justified as merely rational will not be struck down.

    In Iowa, the use of heightened scrutiny means that you need to make a stronger case in the future to discriminate against homosexuals than you would have to in Massachusetts.  And that is awesome.

  • Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    FYI- Today is apparently Bob Hanson's B-Day, the lower court judge who wrote the opinion in Varnum v Brien.

    If so, what a b-day present!

    My wife Sally had court this morning and Judge Hanson was quite contrite in his remarks, only saying, "I am pleased that the Supreme Court agreed that my reasoning was sound."

    Right, Bob Hanson worked his butt off writing that opinion, kudos to him for all his hard work and research.

    We had an ACLU of Iowa reception at our house last night, and Ben Stone, Iowa ACLU Director, was on pins and needles the entire evening.

    Ok, gotta go party now, my friend Mona has been surfing for "Mail Order Brides" all morning, and wants my input on some of her "selections".  Ha!

    Oh, I almost forgot, Bob Hanson's very first jury trial was an eight day circus, with thirteen co-defendants, all arrested for protesting in March '03, at the beginning of the conflict in Iraq.

    I was a pro se defendant in that trial, my wife represented nine of my co-defendants, and that is how we met.

  • A great day to be an Iowan!

    I am extremely proud of the Iowa Supreme Court.  And I agree wholeheartedly with Desmoinesdem's point about people disapproving of all kinds of marriages.  My own marriage would have been illegal in most states only a few decades back.

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