Loving v. Virginia, then and now: race, sexuality, religion, & law

We welcome a guest post today from Fay Botham, author of the forthcoming book Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Interracial Marriage, and American Law. In her book, Botham demonstrates how Christianity was important to both racist and antiracist movements in the 19th and 20th centuries and how those movements influenced litigation over matters of marriage and race. In this post on the anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision, she shows how 21st-century arguments against same-sex marriage echo the biblical defense of racism from a previous generation.–ellen

June 12, 2009, marks the forty-second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving v. Virginia ruling, which declared laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional, thus ending the nearly three-hundred-year American history of such laws. In recent years, scholars and journalists have remarked upon the parallels between interracial and same-sex marriage. But one aspect that has not been adequately examined is the way that religious beliefs bolster arguments against both types of marriage. The anniversary of the Loving case offers an opportunity to reflect upon the links between racism, heterosexism, and Christian belief.

It all began in June 1958, when eighteen-year-old Mildred Jeter, who was part black and part Cherokee, and twenty-four-year-old Richard Loving, who was of English-Irish descent, left their Virginia hometown to get married in Washington, D.C. The couple then returned to Virginia, but their matrimonial bliss ended abruptly about five weeks later. During the wee hours of a sultry July morning, three police officers entered the Lovings’ home through their unlocked front door. The county sheriff and two deputies found their way into the couple’s bedroom, shined a flashlight in their faces, and demanded to know what they were doing in bed together. When Mildred answered, “I’m his wife,” and Richard directed the officers to the District of Columbia marriage certificate that hung on the wall, the sheriff curtly informed them that their marriage was invalid in the state of Virginia. He then arrested the bewildered young couple and hauled them off to jail. There they were charged with having violated Virginia statutes prohibiting both interracial marriage and leaving the state to evade that law. They pleaded guilty to the charges, and Judge Leon Bazile sentenced each to one year in the county jail, but suspended the sentence on the condition that they agree to leave Virginia and not return together for 25 years.

The Lovings eventually went to court to challenge their convictions, contending that Virginia’s antimiscegenation statutes violated their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. In 1965, Judge Bazile reaffirmed the validity of both the laws and his original decision, concluding his remarks with the following words:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Unresolved in Virginia courts, the case—aptly named Loving v. Virginia—went on to the U.S. Supreme Court. On 12 June 1967, after nine years of fighting for the legality of their marriage, Mildred and Richard Loving at last received the news they had sought. The Court ruled that antimiscegenation laws violated Americans’ Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection of the law, and were thus unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the Court’s unanimous opinion. “Under our Constitution,” he stated, “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Two years ago on 12 June 2007, Mildred Loving—an active member of a Baptist church, and widowed for thirty-two years from the man she had fought so hard to wed legally—released a statement commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Loving decision. Titled “Loving for All,” the statement quoted Judge Bazile’s “almighty God” statement, observing that many people had once believed “it was God’s plan to keep people apart and that the government should discriminate against people in love.” Mrs. Loving proclaimed her belief that all Americans, regardless of their race, sex, or sexual orientation, “should have that same freedom to marry. . . . That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”

Highlighting the connections between historical arguments against interracial marriage, and contemporary arguments against same-sex marriage, Mrs. Loving’s statement subtly reiterates the claims I wish to make here: namely, that a similar, Bible-based line of reasoning sustains both arguments, and that such arguments are thus unstable, for biblical interpretations are mutable and historically contextual. Like contemporary same-sex couples, interracial couples of the American past faced accusations that their relationships were “unnatural” and “evil,” and were “corruptions” of what God had intended. Some white southerners claimed that God had made black and white persons unequal and thus unsuitable for marriage. They asserted that God would punish Americans for violating divine law by marrying across the color line. And when the possibility of interracial relationships allegedly loomed following the 1954 Brown decision, some southerners adamantly declared, “Never!” As demonstrated in my forthcoming book, Almighty God Created the Races, these beliefs about God having created “separate races” derived from longstanding, nineteenth- and twentieth-century interpretations of stories in the book of Genesis.

Similarly, current disagreements between conservative Christians and Christian proponents of same-sex marriage center on biblical interpretations. Yet like the white southerners in the century following the Civil War, those who today oppose same-sex relationships for “biblical” reasons fail to acknowledge that while the words on the page of the Bible may remain the same, how people understand those words changes over time. Moreover, interpretations abound even during a single historical era. This is because individuals declare what they believe to be biblical “truth,” based upon what they think they “know” at any given moment. Claims to the contrary aside, biblical interpretations spring not from the lips of God, but from God’s earthly mouthpieces. The “truth” of any given interpretation is thus relative rather than absolute.

Persons harboring discriminatory beliefs about race often hold similar, and thus mutually reinforcing, views on sexuality and gender. Especially when such beliefs purport to be based on biblical precepts, increasingly rigid ideologies emerge that disavow alternative perspectives. Yet how much more divine our world might be were we instead to challenge individual and systemic oppression, while maintaining the humility to recognize that our beliefs are far more relative than certain, and more the consequences of our historical moment and personal interpretive paradigm than of any absolute truth.

Fay Botham
University of Iowa