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Varnum v. Brien, Supreme Court of Iowa, United States (3 April 2009)

Procedural Posture

The State of Iowa appealed a district court’s summary judgment ruling in favour of the plaintiffs.


Six same-sex couples requested that the Iowa Supreme Court strike down Section 595.2(1) of the Iowa Code, which limited marriage to opposite-sex couples.


Whether Section 595.2(1) of the Iowa Code, limiting marriage to heterosexual couples, violated the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.

Domestic Law

Iowa Constitution, Article 1 (bill of rights), Section 1 (equal protection), and Section 6 (uniform operation of laws).

Iowa Code, Section 595.2(1) (“Only a marriage between a male and a female is valid”).

Clark v. Board of Directors, Iowa Supreme Court, United States, 1868 (striking down segregation).

In re Ralph, Iowa Supreme Court, United States, 1839 (prohibiting slavery and recognising that equal protection encompasses racial categories).

Reasoning of the Court

The State claimed that five important government interests supported a ban on same-sex marriage. The first three all involved the rearing of children: the marriage institution promoted procreation, childrearing by a father and mother, and the stability of opposite-sex relationships in the context of raising children. The Government further argued, fourth, that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples conserved State resources. Finally, the Government had an interest in supporting the concept and integrity of “traditional” marriage.

In support of these claims, the Government provided testimony from college professors, pediatricians, and psychologists. The plaintiffs countered with expert testimony of their own. The plaintiffs’ experts – who included representatives from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the Child Welfare League of America – reached the opposite conclusion. The Court summarised the plaintiffs’ arguments as follows: “[A]lmost 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.”

The plaintiffs also argued that Section 595.2(1) violated liberty and equality rights under the Iowa Constitution. The rights violated, according to the plaintiffs, included the fundamental right to marry, to privacy, and to familial association. They also claimed that the law unconstitutionally discriminated against them based on their sexual orientation.

The plaintiffs maintained that the inability to marry in Iowa disadvantaged them and placed them in an inferior position relative to opposite-sex couples. They could not, for example, make healthcare decisions for their partners or burial, autopsy, and disposition arrangements. They could not share State-provided health insurance, public-employee benefits, and many state-employer benefits. Tax benefits were denied to same-sex couples, and adoption proceedings were more cumbersome and expensive. The plaintiffs also noted that other non-governmental rights were denied, such as family gym memberships. The most significant disadvantage, however, was “the inability to obtain for themselves and for their children the personal and public affirmation that accompanies marriage”.

The Court began by framing the issue within the constitutional principle of equal protection:

The point in time when the standard of equal protection finally takes a new form is a product of the conviction of one, or many, individuals that a particular grouping results in inequality and the ability of the judicial system to perform its constitutional role free from the influences that tend to make society’s understanding of equal protection resistant to change.

The Court compared the plaintiffs’ case with other landmark equal protection cases in Iowa’s history, including Clark v. Board of Directors (striking down segregation) and In re Ralph (refusing to enforce a contract for slavery and holding that State laws must extend equal protection to all races). According to the Court, these decisions confirmed that “absolute equality for all” was “the very foundation principle” of Iowa’s Government.

The Court began its equal protection analysis by identifying whether or not the classification affected groups of similarly situated people; that is, it determined whether same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples were similarly situated, and whether the statutory gender requirements for marriage therefore violated the principle of equal protection. The Court found that the two groups were similarly situated in regard to the purpose of the law. Iowa caselaw indicated that the State’s marriage laws had various purposes. First, they provided a structural framework for one of organised society’s most fundamental institutions. They brought together the financial assets and responsibilities of two individuals, while giving the State (and general public) notice of the parties’ joint status. Same-sex and opposite-sex couples would benefit from such recognition in ways that were identical. Likewise, society benefited from providing couples of both forms with a stable framework for cohabitating and raising children. “Therefore, with respect to the subject and purposes of Iowa’s marriage laws, we find that the plaintiffs are similarly situated compared to heterosexual persons.”

Next, the Court considered whether Section 595.2 of the Iowa Code discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. The law did not prevent gay and lesbian Iowans from marrying. It only required that they marry someone of the opposite sex. The Court found that this meant that “gay or lesbian individuals cannot simultaneously fulfill their deeply felt need for a committed personal relationship, as influenced by their sexual orientation, and gain the civil status and attendant benefits granted by the statute. Instead, a gay or lesbian person can only gain the same rights under the statute as a heterosexual person by negating the very trait that defines gay and lesbian people as a class-their sexual orientation.” The right to marry was thus no right at all.

Like all equal protection claims heard by the United States Supreme Court, the Iowa Supreme Court determined the appropriate level of scrutiny by considering four factors: (1) the history of discrimination against the class; (2) the ability of the class to contribute to society; (3) the mutability of the class’s distinguishing characteristic; (4) the political power of the class. The Court considered each of these issues, and found that the law had to pass more than a rational basis justification. Throughout United States history, the LGBT community had been regularly and systematically discriminated against. The group’s ability to contribute to society had no relationship to its distinguishing characteristic. The Court accepted that the group’s distinguishing characteristic – sexual orientation – was immutable; or, if it was not, that sexual orientation was “not the type of human trait that allows courts to relax their standard of review because the barrier is temporary or susceptible to self-help”. Finally, while the LGBT community had political power through the democratic process, and had significantly improved its access to civil rights, the Court was “convinced gay and lesbian people are not so politically powerful as to overcome the unfair and severe prejudice that history suggests produces discrimination based on sexual orientation”. While the Court accepted that, based on these factors, sexual orientation discrimination merited heightened scrutiny, the Iowa Court, like the United States Supreme Court, refused to rule on whether or not sexual orientation discrimination required strict, rather than intermediate, scrutiny. The Iowa Court stated that Iowa’s same-sex marriage prohibition did not even withstand intermediate scrutiny.

The intermediate standard required that a constitutionally valid statutory classification had to serve an important government interest. The Court rejected the Government’s interest in protecting the tradition of marriage. It reasoned that the Government’s logic was circular. The Government’s only real objective was to limit civil marriage to opposite-sex couples. Its interest in creating an optimal environment to raise children failed too. While the Government presented sincere opinions and testimonies, these were not supported by reliable science, which supported the plaintiffs’ arguments. Furthermore, the Government’s argument was both under-inclusive, because unmarried same-sex couples could raise children, and over-inclusive, because not all same-sex couples raised children.

The Government argued that it also had an interest in promoting procreation. This interest was valid if, and only if, excluding same-sex couples from marriage resulted directly in higher birth rates. It did not. Similarly, the Court found no reason to conclude that the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage would promote stability in opposite-sex marriages. Finally, the Court addressed the issues of the conservation of State resources. The State rationally believed that restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples would increase the State’s tax income and lower its expenses, by reducing the number of marriage benefits. However, this goal could be accomplished by prohibiting any identifiable group from marrying. The Court stated that “such classifications so obviously offend our society’s collective sense of equality that courts have not hesitated to provide added protections against such inequalities”. The Court rejected this government interest too. As a result, the “equal protection clause requires more than has been offered to justify the continued existence of the same-sex marriage ban under the statute.”

The Government failed to justify the existence of any important interest in its exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. Ruling that the statute violated the Iowa Constitution, the Court legalised same-sex marriages.

Varnum v. Brien, Supreme Court of Iowa, United States (full text of judgment, PDF)