Iowa Supreme Court Ruling On Marriage Upholds Religious Liberty

Decision Reiterates That Religion Does Not Drive Public Policy, Says Church-State Watchdog Group

Today’s Iowa Supreme Court decision striking down a state law banning same-sex marriage is a welcome reaffirmation of religious liberty, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In its unanimous ruling, the Iowa high court makes 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 the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “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.”

Observed the court in its Varnum v. Brien ruling, “[C]ivil 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 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.”

Lynn said this aspect of the ruling is important, as 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.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.