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Mother’s Day Comes Early for Iowa’s Married Same-Sex Couples

Amanda Goad,
LGBT Project
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May 3, 2013

Same-sex couples have had the freedom to marry in Iowa since 2009. Melissa and Heather Gartner are among the thousands of same-sex couples who have married there. But when Heather gave birth to their daughter Mackenzie in 2010, the Gartners discovered that there were some loopholes in the “marriage equality” they thought their home state of Iowa had achieved. The Iowa Department of Public Health refused to list Melissa Gartner as Mackenzie’s parent on her birth certificate. That left Melissa in the awkward position of lacking legal proof of her relationship to the baby, should she need to travel with Mackenzie or arrange medical care for her when her wife isn’t on hand to sign paperwork.

The state of Iowa based its decision on the fact that Melissa is not Mackenzie’s biological father—which is true, but also misses the point. Iowa, like most other states, has a “spousal presumption” that a mother’s spouse is legally recognized as the other parent of children born to her during the marriage. It’s crystal-clear under Iowa law that the husband of a biological mother may be listed as a parent on a child’s birth certificate, regardless of whether he’s the biological father.

For example, Iowa authorities previously determined that a mother’s husband should be listed on her baby’s birth certificate when he had been serving overseas in the military at the time of conception (so he couldn’t possibly be the biological father). The spousal presumption is one of the most basic rights and responsibilities of marriage. But Iowa officials refused to apply that presumption fairly when they started to receive birth certificate applications that listed the mother’s female spouse as a parent.

The Gartners filed suit against the Iowa Department of Health in 2010, represented by Lambda Legal. In January 2012, they received a favorable decision from an Iowa trial court, but the state appealed. Later in 2012, the ACLU’s LGBT Project and the ACLU of Iowa submitted a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Iowa Supreme Court to rule in the Gartners’ favor. Expanding on the arguments our colleagues at Lambda Legal put forth, we argued that it’s a violation of the strong equal protection guarantees in the Iowa Constitution to discriminate against Melissa on the basis of her sex and sexual orientation, as well as against baby Mackenzie based on the status of her parents (just as the U.S. Supreme Court has determined it’s unconstitutional for states to deny rights to children whose parents happen to be unmarried), by denying them the benefits of birth certificate listing.

Today, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Gartners, affirming once and for all that the spousal presumption applies to mothers’ wives, just like it does to mothers’ husbands. In its 6-0 ruling, the Court focused on the equal protection issue. It determined that the state of Iowa was discriminating based on sexual orientation when it applied the spousal presumption to list a husband as the father on a birth certificate when a straight couple had conceived through donor insemination, but refused to apply the presumption when a lesbian couple had conceived the very same way. This decision will bring Iowa in line with all of the other states that recognize marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples, by allowing a mother’s spouse or partner to be listed as a parent on their child’s birth certificate.

We encourage all married lesbian couples who give birth to pursue second-parent adoptions, since an adoption judgment is the most solid legal confirmation of the parental relationship and is the surest way to ensure protection in case issues arise in a part of the country that doesn’t yet recognize marriage for same-sex couples. Nonetheless, requiring Iowa to name both mothers on birth certificates will be both practically useful and symbolically important for Iowa families.

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