Some week. The Vermont legislature voted to let same-sex couples marry, and the Iowa Supreme Court decided that it is unconstitutional not to let same-sex couples marry. Together, these two events are a much needed shot in the arm for marriage.
Iowa is the first win in a flat state without an ocean view. And the decision was unanimous. Vermont is the first time a state legislature has opened marriage, and it did it by a stunning veto override.
Iowa and Vermont don’t entirely erase the damage from losing the Proposition 8 vote in California last November. They don’t have either the cultural or economic influence that the Golden State has. Still, there’s nothing like winning and winning big.
One of the nice things about Vermont is that it more or less puts an end to the idea that marriage is the creature of “unelected judges.” This is two-thirds of the state legislature.
The Iowa Supreme Court decision is the third from a state high court to treat government discrimination against gay people generally as a serious constitutional problem (the other two are the California and Connecticut marriage cases). All three courts say that a long history of discrimination driven by prejudice should make courts suspicious anytime the government singles gay people out. We now have something we’ve been working toward for years; a body of case law we can use to attack discrimination.
What truly sets the Iowa decision apart is a passage in which the Court addresses head-on what it says is the “unspoken” reason why many support the exclusion: religious opposition.
The Court says that while many oppose marriage for religious reasons, religion cannot justify a law excluding gay people from marriage. “State government can have no religious views,” the opinion says, “either directly or indirectly expressed through its legislation.” “This proposition,” the Court goes on to say, “is the essence of the separation of church and state.”
That proposition ought to be obvious, but in the last 25 years, it seems almost to have disappeared from civic discourse in America. It took guts for the Iowa court to say what virtually no other government official has been willing to admit. By bluntly pointing out that religion has driven much of the debate and reminding other courts and legislatures of their obligation not to enshrine religion in law, the Court gave a deeply practical rationale for insisting that marriage exclusions either be based on rigorous logic and evidence or be struck down. And it is that down-to-earth honesty that will, I believe, make this a deeply influential opinion.