Court: Iowa Must Recognize Both Lesbian Parents
An Iowa agency’s refusal to list both spouses in a lesbian marriage as parents on their children’s birth certificates is a violation of their constitutional rights and must stop, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court, which made history by legalizing gay marriage in 2009, ordered the Iowa Department of Public Health to start listing the names of both female spouses on the birth certificates of their children. The ruling was backed by all six justices who participated.
Iowa had been the only state in the nation that allowed marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples, but refused to list both spouses on birth certificates of their children, according to Camilla Taylor, an attorney for Lambda Legal, a gay rights group involved in the case.
Justice David Wiggins said the state government "has been unable to identify a constitutionally adequate justification" for treating lesbian parents differently than parents of opposite sex. He said the only explanation for doing so was "stereotype or prejudice" that violated their rights to be treated equally under the Iowa Constitution.
"It is important for our laws to recognize that married lesbian couples who have children enjoy the same benefits and burdens as married opposite-sex couples who have children," Wiggins wrote.
The court’s ruling appears to be limited to lesbian couples who use sperm donors to conceive children. Taylor said using sperm donors is by far the most common way for same-sex couples to conceive, and the court may have to decide another day how to treat lesbian or gay male couples who have children through surrogate mothers.
"The Department of Public Health appreciates the definitive direction from the Supreme Court and it will fully implement the directive of the Court to name both married lesbian women as a child’s parents on the birth certificate," spokeswoman Polly Carver-Kimm said.
The ruling is a victory for Heather and Melissa Gartner of Des Moines, who filed the lawsuit after the department listed only Heather as a parent of their daughter in 2009. The couple argued the agency’s decision deprived their daughter of the protections and benefits of having two legal parents present from birth.
Hundreds of same-sex couples in Iowa have been denied accurate birth certificates since 2009, Taylor said, and suffer a range of problems as a result of one of the spouses not being considered legal parents. They’ve had hassles enrolling their children in schools, taking them to the doctor and traveling, she said.
"This is a great day not just for the Gartner family who fought long and hard, but for so many other hundreds of Iowa families that want accurate, two-parent vital records for their kids," she said.
The department had previously told same-sex couples they had to complete the lengthy and expensive legal process of adopting the child in order to be issued a birth certificate listing both as parents. The Gartners did that for a son born before the court’s 2009 decision legalized gay marriage.
After the ruling, the Gartners got married. Heather gave birth to a daughter, Mackenzie, using the same anonymous sperm donor as before. At the hospital, the Gartners filled out the form listing both as parents. But when they got Mackenzie’s birth certificate back, Heather was listed as a parent and the space for the second was blank.
The department explained that its system only recognized biological mothers and fathers. Its lawyers later argued the goal was to ensure vital records accurately reflected a child’s biological parents and helped establish paternity to ensure financial support of the child.
But Wiggins said those claims were undercut because the department recognizes both parents of opposite-sex couples who give birth through sperm donors, and for same-sex couples who complete the adoption process.
"These realities demonstrate that the disparate treatment of married lesbian couples is less effective and efficient, and that some other unarticulated reason, such as stereotype or prejudice, may explain the real objective of the state," he wrote.
The decision was the court’s first involving gay rights since Iowa voters in 2010 removed three of the justices who joined the 2009 marriage ruling.
Two of the three replacements appointed by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield, joined the outcome of Friday’s ruling in a concurrence. They noted pointedly that the state declined to challenge the 2009 ruling and that if it is the law, the Gartners both had to be recognized as parents. The third, Bruce Zager, didn’t participate.