Iowa Supreme Court’s Marriage Ruling Respects Religious Liberty, Says AU

An Iowa Supreme Court decision striking down a state ban on same-sex marriage is a welcome reaffirmation of religious liberty, says Americans United.

In their unanimous ruling April 3, the justices made it clear that religious denominations have a constitutional right to set their own rules about marriage but that civil law should reflect equal protection for all citizens and not be anchored in religious dogma.

“The court has reaffirmed religious liberty,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, in a press statement. “The justices reminded us that religious groups are free to marry whomever they choose, but civil law cannot be based on any group’s theology.

“The court has recognized that civil marriage is the province of government and religious marriage is the province of the faith community,” Lynn said. “That’s what our constitutional principles mandate, and that’s the way it should be. Clergy are free to perform or decline to perform marriage ceremonies, while the government treats everyone equally when it comes to civil marriage.”

Although it tended to get overlooked in the reporting about the decision, a large portion of the ruling reflected Americans United’s view that civil law must not be based only on marriage doctrines held by some theological traditions.

“[C]ivil marriage must be judged under our constitutional standards of equal protection and not under religious doctrines or the religious views of individuals,” observed the court in its Varnum v. Brien ruling. “This approach does not disrespect or denigrate the religious views of many Iowans who may strongly 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.”

The court also made clear that its decision protects the rights of religious groups that oppose same-sex unions.

“In the final analysis, we give respect to the views of all Iowans on the issue of same-sex marriage – religious or otherwise – by giving respect to our constitutional principles,” the justices asserted. “These principles require that the state recognize both opposite-sex and same-sex civil marriage. Religious doctrine and views contrary to this principle of law are unaffected, and people can continue to associate with the religion that best reflects their views.”

Added the court, “A religious denomination can still define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and a marriage ceremony performed by a minister, priest, rabbi, or other person ordained or designated as a leader of the person’s religious faith does not lose its meaning as a sacrament or other religious institution.”

AU’s Lynn said this aspect of the ruling is important, because it debunks the common Religious Right argument that houses of worship will be forced to perform same-sex ceremonies.

“Religious Right scaremongers are trying to frighten clergy with bald-faced lies,” said Lynn. “The Iowa ruling makes clear just how wrong this charge is.”

Religious Right organizations were infuriated by the decision, with Family Research Council President Tony Perkins calling it a “stunning act of judicial tyranny.”

Days later, Perkins and other Religious Right leaders suffered another defeat when the Vermont legislature overrode Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto and legalized same-sex marriage in the state. In addition, the Washington, D.C. Council has voted to recognize same-sex unions approved by various states.