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Congratulations to Iowa on Five Years of Marriage Equality
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 04/03/14
Last updated on: 04/04/14
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Congratulations to Iowa on five years of marriage equality. In a unanimous ruling announced on April 3, 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the Iowa law banning same-sex marriage on equal protection grounds. Although the decision in Varnum v. Brien cost three Supreme Court justices their seats on the bench, their courage has been vindicated both by subsequent legal developments and by increased acceptance of marriage equality in the state.

The decision, authored by Justice Mark Cady, stemmed from a 2005 lawsuit filed by six gay and lesbian couples who were denied marriage licenses by the Polk County recorder's office. The seven justices affirmed the appellate ruling of Polk County Judge Robert Hanson that Iowa's ban on same-sex marriages treated gay and lesbian couples unequally under the law.

In a carefully reasoned and firmly stated decision, the court declared, "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."

Acknowledging that the decision may not be a popular one in a conservative state, the court insisted on its duty to uphold the Iowa constitution. "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."

The Court ordered that marriage licenses be issued to same-sex couples as soon as the decision was officially promulgated. It further ordered that the language in Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil marriage to a man and a woman be stricken from the statute, and the remaining statutory language be interpreted and applied in a manner allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage.

The Iowa decision was particularly important because it was the first decision in favor of marriage equality from a heartland state. Moreover, the decision was extraordinarily well-written and thoughtful.

Although polls indicated that a large majority of Iowans were opposed to same-sex marriage at the time, repeated Republican attempts to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the Court's decision were thwarted by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal.

However, the National Organization for Marriage and other conservative forces successfully targeted three members of the Iowa Supreme Court for removal from the bench in 2010. Their success indicated continuing anger at the Court for its ruling.

It should be noted, however, that the three jurists refused to campaign on their own behalf, feeling that that would be unseemly and would compromise the integrity of the court.

Moreover, in the historic election of November 2012, when voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington ratified marriage equality, an attempt to remove another member of the Iowa Supreme Court failed. Justice David Wiggins survived an attempt to remove him from the bench. He was retained on the bench by a 54-46 margin, thus delivering a blow to anti-gay activists and signalling increased support for same-sex marriage in Iowa.

Recent polls have shown that a majority of Iowans now support same-sex marriage.

As Sharyn Jackson reports in USA Today, the three justices who lost their seats--Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices Michael Streit and David Baker--have continued their careers as attorneys: Ternus is a lecturer and trial consultant in Des Moines, Streit is an arbitrator at the Des Moines firm of Ahlers & Cooney, and Baker is a mediator in Cedar Rapids.

In 2012, the three were honored with the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.

In accepting the award, Ternus said, "We knew that our decision would be unpopular with many people, and we even knew in the back of our minds that we could lose our jobs because of our votes in that case. But we took an oath of office in which we promised to uphold the Iowa Constitution without fear, favor or hope of reward, and that is what we did."

In presenting the Profile in Courage Award to the three justices who lost their seats, Caroline Kennedy said, "They don't think they did anything special, they were just doing their job. But for public officials, just doing their job often demands a special kind of courage. Standing up for human rights requires courage. Serving the interest of all citizens, not just the majority, requires courage."

In the video below, from 2012, former Chief Justice Ternus accepts the Profile in Courage Award.

Justice David Baker accepts his Profile in Courage Award.

Justice Michael Streit accepts his Profile in Courage Award.

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