Monday, September 03, 2007

Same-Sex Marriage in Iowa

When you think about strongholds of gay rights, Iowa is not the first place that comes to mind. So I thought it was pretty significant Thursday when a District Court in Iowa ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. The Judge quickly put a stay on the ruling pending appeal, but two Iowa men managed to jump through the narrow window of opportunity and get married anyway. (I have to promote my denomination: The ceremony was performed the Rev. Mark Stringer of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines.)

The mainstream media did a remarkably poor job of telling us what the judge actually ruled and why. So I thought I'd plug that hole. Judge Robert Hanson's ruling is a well-written summary of where the same-sex marriage issue stands.

Six same-sex couples (three male, three female) who live in Polk County, Iowa sued the Polk County Recorder who would not issue them marriage licenses. Prior to the trial, each side asked for a summary judgment in its favor. Here's what that means: Before a trial, the two sides throw paperwork back and forth to identify which facts everyone agrees to and which facts are in dispute. The purpose of a trial is for an impartial party (either a judge or a jury) to settle the disputed questions of fact. A summary judgment essentially says: "We don't need to have a trial." Either the undisputed facts are enough to settle the case, or the evidence that one side intends to present is irrelevant to resolving the disputed facts. Judge Hanson issued a summary judgment in favor of the couples (the plaintiffs).

The heart of the Judge's logic, like the Massachusetts judgment in 2003, is a rational basis test concerning the couples' right to equal protection under the law. In other words, democracy isn't about the majority doing whatever it wants. (This is a point we're trying to make the Iraqis understand, so we really ought to get clear about it ourselves.) If the point of a law is just to persecute some unpopular group, the legislature has exceeded its constitutional power. The state has certain legitimate interests, and every law that treats some group of people differently than the rest needs to have a rational connection to those interests.

So the question is: Does banning same-sex marriage have a rational connection to any legitimate interest of the State of Iowa? Or is the point just to stick it to gays and lesbians?

The defendants argued that the rational connection is this: Traditional marriage provides the best setting for raising children, and the State has a legitimate interest in seeing to it that children are well raised. So the State has an interest in defending traditional marriage.

The Judge could not find any meaning in the phrase traditional marriage beyond the specific one of not being same-sex marriage.
Marriage in the United States is virtually unrecognizable from its earlier common law counterpart, having undergone radical, unthinkable changes in laws governing who may marry, when marriages may end, and the legal significance and consequences of marriage for the individuals involved. ... When Iowa's first marriage law was passed ... married women were essentially chattel; they were not considered legal "persons" who could exercise rights, hold property, earn money, or deny their husbands access to their bodies.
So what is traditional marriage, anyway? Does defend traditional marriage mean anything more than just stick it to the gays? The Judge didn't phrase it that crudely, but his conclusion was essentially that it doesn't.

So the Judge wasn't interested in generalities about traditional marriage. Instead he wanted to see some specific empirical evidence about how well same-sex households raise children. The defendants weren't offering any, while the plaintiffs were. The Judge wrote:
Children raised by gay and lesbian parents are as well adjusted and as psychologically, emotionally, educationally and socially successful as children raised by heterosexual parents. This has been documented by numerous studies conducted over 25 years by respected researchers.
And the Judge noted that the marriage laws are a weird way to accomplish the alleged purpose of supporting Iowa's children. Convicted child molesters can get married in Iowa, but not gay and lesbian couples. Gay and lesbian couples can legally adopt children in Iowa, but not raise them in a married household. He noted that more than 3,000 Iowa children are being raised in households of same-sex couples. Clearly these children are being harmed when their parents are excluded from the legal benefits of marriage. Which children are being helped?

So, looking at the whole situation, Judge Hanson could find no rational relationship between the goal of providing a supportive environment for Iowa's children and the "remedy" of preventing gay and lesbian couples from marrying. Gay and lesbians couples are denied marriage rights because the majority disapproves of them, and not because exercising those rights would interfere with any legitimate purpose of the state.

In the conservative objections to the ruling that I have seen so far, there is a lot of outrage, but no substantive answer to any of the logic in Judge Hanson's ruling.


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