Friday, April 03, 2009

Hoisted on one's own petard

There will be a great deal written about the Iowa Supreme Court's unanimous decision today holding that a statute that limits civil marriage to opposite sex couples violates the equal protection provisions of the Iowa Constitution. But in looking over the opinion and the Court's own summary of it, one justification for the decision jumped out at me:
“Our constitution does not permit any branch of government to resolve these types of religious debates and entrusts to courts the task of ensuring government avoids them . . . . 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 marriage.”

The full opinion (big pdf) recognizes at page 66:
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 a s 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.

In other words, those seeking to limit marriage because of their own religious views do themselves no favor by continuing to loudly proclaim they know God's will and that their God's will ought to control. By casting the question as one of religious doctrine - not civil institutions - the religious community pushed the Supreme Court into a corner. By relying upon grounds based firmly in their religious views, gay marriage opponents forced the Court to avoid religious justification for the institution of marriage lest they do what would "damage our constitution immeasurably." And when one steps back from religious justification for the limitations on marriage, few arguments remain, especially in light of the equal protection standards in the Iowa Constitution. When one religious sect insists as loudly as American evangelicals do that they call the shots, they do risk forcing a court take an opposite position.

Be careful what you screech for, in other words.

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