Iowa Must List Both Mothers On Child’s Death Certificate
An Iowa judge has ruled that the state’s administration cannot lawfully block a married same-sex couple being registered as parents on their child’s death certificate.
District Judge Robert Hutchison issued a 20-page ruling Friday finding that “as parents, a mother’s wife is identical to a mother’s husband in every common and ordinary sense except for biology” and that the state department’s “policy of refusing to register a mother’s wife on a certificate is not substantially related to any important governmental objective.”
The policy therefore runs afoul of Iowa’s equal-protection laws, Hutchison ruled.
The case was filed last year by Lambda Legal on behalf of Jenny and Jessica Buntemeyer who, having endured the tragedy of a stillborn birth in October 2011 and subsequently filing their child’s death certificate, were aghast when the Iowa Department of Public Health, despite same-sex marriage being legal in the state, erased Jenny’s name from the original certificate.
When challenged, the department refused to recognize Jenny as the child’s second parent because they said paternity was determined by biology, and because Jenny did not share biology with the child she had no claim. In short, the department said, children require a mother or father in order to be parents and for the sake of accurate records they would not allow her to list herself on the death certificate.
Lambda Legal took on the Buntemeyer’s case, arguing that the department was disregarding Iowa law and the 2009 state supreme court ruling that said, under the Iowa constitution, marriage and all its legal attributes must be offered to same-sex couples in the same way they are offered to heterosexual couples.
Lambda Legal argued that for the purposes of registering a birth and death certificate, biology was not, under established law, a defining factor for what constitutes a parent. Furthermore, they said, the department appeared to be specifically targeting same-sex couples as a way to fight the same-sex marriage ruling of 2009.
Lambda legal won the case in a lower court but the Iowa Department of Health appealed.
Last week, Judge Robert Hutchison agreed with the lower court that “refusing to register a mother’s wife on a Certificate is not substantially related to any important governmental objective,” and that the “DPH has unconstitutionally interfered with a same-sex wife’s ability to receive the benefits of a Certificate.”
As to the department’s claim that they could not recognize same-sex parents as a matter of accuracy, Judge Hutchison said “DPH could achieve a more accurate and complete record by registering both parents on a certificate regardless of gender. Therefore, DPH’s policy of refusing to register a mother’s wife on a certificate is not substantially related to accuracy.”
Hutchison went on to say the department therefore must “modify the Certificate form” and must in the future act “consistently with its statutory duties,” affirming that a “categorical refusal to register a mother’s wife on a Certificate violates equal protection.”
Said Camilla Taylor, Lambda Legal’s Marriage Project Director, in a statement:
The court affirmed what should have been clear to the Iowa Department of Public Health from reading Varnum v. Brien–Lambda Legal’s case that established that same-sex couples in Iowa have an equal right to marry–that a child born to a married couple has two parents, regardless of whether the spouses are same-sex or different-sex. Vital records document legal parentage, not biology. In this case, the state was not only denying that Jenny and Jessica are both mothers, it was trying to erase Jenny from the family. A death certificate for Brayden is their sole legal record of his existence and his significance to their family.
The Buntemeyers will always grieve the loss of their child. But, at least now they do not also have to face denial and discrimination from the government.
A massive thank you to the hundreds of Care2 members who signed a Care2 petition calling on the Iowa Department of Public Health to cease its discriminatory treatment of same-sex couples.
Image credit: Thinkstock.