A False Analogy—Gay Marriage and Interracial Marriage
In 1967, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the United States Supreme Court handed down a ruling in Loving v. Virginia which struck down sixteen state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Finding such laws to be rooted in nothing but “invidious racism,” the court ruled that “Under our constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”1 That decision in Loving has recently become the flashpoint of another national debate, this one over gay marriage. Gay rights activists have taken to declaring loudly and frequently that the nation’s refusal today to marry two people of the same sex is no different from its refusal forty years ago to marry two people of different races: The court stepped in then, they say, and it should do so again. In 2003, the Massachusetts Superior Court did just that, handing down a decision that actually cited the Loving case as a precedent for forcing same-sex marriage on the people of that state. Decreed the court: “As . . . Loving make[s] clear, the right to marry means little if it does not include the right to marry the person of one’s own choice. . .”2
But how far, really, can this argument from Loving v. Virginia be carried? Obviously, it is a compelling analogy in the national debate; at least four judges in Massachusetts’ highest court bought it hook, line, and sinker. There is a serious problem, however, with the court’s reasoning: Considered carefully, the Loving decision did not declare a right to marry anyone a person wants to marry; in fact, by striking down a few states’ peculiar racial prejudices, it re-affirmed and re-established a simple, ages-old, traditional definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Richard Loving was a white man who had been banished from Virginia for 25 years because he married a black woman. Suing the state, Loving actually asked the court to reaffirm the ancient, uncomplicated understanding of marriage—the union of one man and one woman—to strip away Virginia’s strange racial additions to that definition, and to allow him to marry the woman he loved. The court concurred, ruling that Virginia’s additions to the definition of marriage were based solely in a racist desire to maintain white supremacy over blacks. The decision did not offer a new definition of marriage; on the contrary, it removed the unwelcome barnacles of Southern racism from what had been a world-wide, unanimous understanding of the institution. Even in the United States, Virginia’s definition was the minority one. At the time of the ruling, only 16 states had anti-miscegenation laws; 14 states had already repealed them through normal democratic and legislative processes. 3 In short, the race-torn nation was quickly realigning itself with the long-established, unadorned definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The court likewise accepted that definition and simply forced a few recalcitrant states to rejoin the parade.
The demand for same-sex marriage, on the other hand, is something quite different. Gay rights activists are asking America’s courts to do something entirely unprecedented—depart from the traditional definition of marriage and redefine it altogether. When the Massachusetts Superior Court imposed same-sex marriage, it was not merely scraping away the barnacles of some peculiar prejudice from a time-honored tradition; it was redefining marriage at its very heart. What is more, it did so in spite of a near national consensus on the matter. Loving threw down the laws of 16 recalcitrant states, but 34 others had already come to the same conclusion. Forcing same-sex marriage, on the other hand, would require a change of law in all 50 states, every one of which has a population strongly in favor of the traditional definition.
Loving v. Virginia therefore does not provide any kind of precedent for same-sex marriage. Far from affirming a right to marry anyone a person chooses, Loving reaffirmed a trans-cultural, trans-civilizational, and even trans-religious definition of marriage. Same-sex marriage would cast all that away and redefine the institution entirely.
Of course, the definition of marriage is not up for grabs. In the very beginning, God ordained it to consist of a single man and a single woman. For most of human history, that divine mandate went largely unchallenged, including in 1967. Now in the space of only a few years, a handful of activists are demanding that a handful of judges overturn the received wisdom of the ages.4 Perhaps the more judicious course of action would be to take a deep breath, cool the activist zeal for a moment, and consider how dire the consequences might be for such a brash and unprecedented move.
United States Supreme Court Decision, Loving v. Virginia, 388 U. S. 1 (1967), Id. at 12.
Hillary Goodridge, et al. v. Department of Public Health, (Mass. Superior Court) SJC-08860, III.B.
Clayton Cramer, “Bad Analogies: Interracial and Gay Marriages,” Clayton Cramer’s Blog, http://www.claytoncramer.com/weblog/2004_02_22_archive.html#107776599068817597.
See Kairos Journal article, "Homosexuality and the Wisdom of the Ages."