Iowa Supreme Court Overturns Gay Marriage Ban; Junk Science Opposed by CFI Proves Uncompelling

April 3, 2009

This morning the   Iowa Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion that a 1998 Iowa state law banning gay marriage violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa constitution.  This makes Iowa one of three states that currently allow same-sex marriages.  (Connecticut and Massachusetts currently allow gay marriage; California allowed gay marriage until a voter referendum last November.)  The opinion in   Varnum v. Brien is an important victory for all who value equality under the law, as well as for those who oppose efforts to enshrine religious prejudice into law.

Last year   the Center for Inquiry’s legal department filed a joint amicus brief in Iowa Supreme Court defending the lower court’s exclusion of junk-science, in the form of purported "expert" opinions by conservative religionists and other pseudo-scientists.  These so-called "experts" claimed to have scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge about alleged dangers of same-sex marriage.  In reality, the "experts" included religious studies scholars, a historian with ties to a conservative religious advocacy group, and a self-described expert in "technoscience" who admitted to relying on her "moral intuitions" and "examined emotions" to reach her conclusions.  The district court found that the state’s proffered "experts" lacked the appropriate experience or training in the relevant fields of social science, child development, psychology, or psychiatry to support their opinions.  CFI and other friends-of-the-court argued that the district court properly excluded the junk science, which amounted to mere personal opinion disguised as scientific evidence.  The state opposed CFI’s arguments, with assistance from attorneys at the Alliance Defense Fund, an anti-gay Religious Right organization based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Astonishingly, the Iowa Supreme Court found that the district court should have admitted the disputed testimony as relevant opinion on "legislative" and "constitutional" facts, to which the formal rules of evidence do not apply.  Happily, however, the junk science appears to have had little influence on the Iowa Supreme Court’s ultimate decision.  Considering all evidence before it, the Court unanimously rejected the purported experts’ opinions:   "Much of the testimony presented by the County was in the form of opinions by various individuals that same-sex marriage would harm the institution of marriage and also harm children raised in same-sex marriages. . . . Almost every professional group that has studied the issue indicates children are not harmed when raised by same-sex couples, but to the contrary, benefit from them. In Iowa, agencies that license foster parents have found same-sex couples to be good and acceptable parents."  The Court declared that in light of the total evidence, the district court’s exclusion of the purported expert testimony "is of no consequence" under the Court’s standard of review.

I will review the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision this afternoon.  Stay tuned for further comments. 

* * * UPDATE * * *

Having read the entirety of the Court’s opinion, I am still more encouraged.

First, although the Court’s decision to allow junk science testimony on questions of legislative fact is alarming, it is encouraging that the Court saw through the "expert" witnesses’ smoke screen.  The Court addresses the purported experts’ claims on page 54:

  "Plaintiffs presented an abundance of evidence and research, confirmed by our independent research, supporting the proposition that the interests of children are served equally by same-sex parents and opposite-sex parents.  On the other hand, we acknowledge the existence of reasoned opinions that dual-gender parenting is the optimal environment for children. These opinions, while thoughtful and sincere, were largely unsupported by reliable scientific studies."

Second, the Iowa Supreme Court took an enormous stride forward by addressing the proverbial elephant in the room: religiously-motivated animus towards gays and lesbians, and towards same-sex relationships in particular.    CFI was perhaps the only organization to address the all-important church-state angle on the gay marriage question during the California Supreme Court’s deliberations.  The California Supreme Court chose to legalize gay marriage without mentioning the issue.  In contrast, pages 63-67 of the Iowa Court’s opinion contain a thorough, well-reasoned, and refreshingly honest analysis:

  "Now that we have addressed and rejected each specific interest advanced by the County to justify the classification drawn under the statute, we consider the reason for the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from civil marriage left unspoken by the County: religious opposition to same-sex marriage. The County’s silence reflects, we believe, its understanding this reason cannot, under our Iowa Constitution, be used to justify a ban on same-sex marriage.  While unexpressed, religious sentiment most likely motivates many, if not most, opponents of same-sex civil marriage and perhaps even shapes the views of those people who may accept gay and lesbian unions but find the notion of same-sex marriage unsettling."

The Court draws the all-important distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage, a distinction that religious opponents of same-sex marriage frequently seek to evade (internal citation omitted):

  "The statute at issue in this case does not prescribe a definition of marriage for religious institutions. Instead, the statute declares, "Marriage is a civil contract" and then regulates that civil contract. Thus, in pursuing our task in this case, we proceed as civil judges, far removed from the theological debate of religious clerics, and focus only on the concept of civil marriage and the state licensing system that identifies a limited class of persons entitled to secular rights and benefits associated with civil marriage."  

The Court also recognizes that many religions recognize and support same-sex marriage.  The Court concludes its analysis with a bold statement in support of the separation of church and state as applied to the question of gay marriage (internal citation omitted):

  "State government can have no religious views, either directly or indirectly, expressed through its legislation. This proposition is the essence of the separation of church and state. As a result, civil 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."

Bravo   . It is high time that the courts, the legislatures, and society recognize the religious purpose behind same-sex marriage bans.