7 Reasons Why the Current Marriage Debate Is Nothing Like the Debate on Interracial Marriage

August 27, 2014 - 10:33 AM

Is opposition to same-sex marriage at all like opposition to interracial marriage?

One refrain in debates over marriage policy is that laws defining marriage as the union of male and female are today’s equivalent of bans on interracial marriage. Some further argue that protecting the freedom to act publicly on the basis of a religious belief that marriage is the union of a man and woman is like legally enforcing race-based segregation. This leads some people to think that the government is right to fine a New York family farm $13,000 for declining to host a lesbian wedding in their barn.

These claims are wrong on several counts, as I explain in my Backgrounder: “Marriage, Reason, and Religious Liberty: Much Ado About Sex, Nothing to Do with Race.” Here are the top seven reasons why:

1. Support for marriage as the union of man and woman has been a near human universal. Great thinkers throughout human history—and from every political community up until the year 2000—thought it reasonable to view marriage as the union of male and female, husband and wife, father and mother. That belief is shared by the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions; by ancient Greek and Roman thinkers untouched by these religions; and by various Enlightenment philosophers. It is affirmed by canon, common and civil law and by ancient Greek and Roman law.

2. Bans on interracial marriage and Jim Crow laws, by contrast, were historical anomalies. These bans were aspects of a much larger, insidious movement that denied the fundamental equality and dignity of all human beings and forcibly segregated citizens. When these interracial marriage bans first arose in the American colonies, they were inconsistent not only with the common law inherited from England, but also with the customs of prior world history, which had not banned interracial marriage. These bans were based not on reason, but on prejudiced ideas about race that emerged in the modern period and that refused to regard all human beings as equal. This led to revisionist, unreasonable conclusions about marriage policy.

3. Great thinkers—including champions of human rights—knew that gender matters for marriage, and none thought that race does. Searching the writings of Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Maimonides and Al-Farabi, Luther and Calvin, Locke and Kant, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., one finds that the sexual union of male and female goes to the heart of their reflections on marriage but that considerations of race with respect to marriage never appear. Only late in human history do political communities prohibit intermarriage on the basis of race. Bans on interracial marriage had nothing to do with the nature of marriage and everything to do with denying dignity and equality before the law.

4. Even cultures that embraced same-sex relationships did not treat them as marriages. Far from having been devised as a pretext for excluding same-sex relationships—as some now charge—marriage as the union of husband and wife arose in many places over several centuries entirely independent of, and well before any debates about, same-sex relationships. Indeed, it arose in cultures that had no concept of sexual orientation and in some that fully accepted homoeroticism and even took it for granted. Bans on interracial marriage, by contrast, were the result of racism and nothing more.

5. Marriage must be color-blind, but it cannot be gender-blind. The melanin content of two people’s skin has nothing to do with their capacity to unite in the bond of marriage as a comprehensive union naturally ordered to procreation. The sexual difference between a man and a woman, however, is central to what marriage is. Men and women regardless of their race can unite in marriage, and children regardless of their race deserve moms and dads. To acknowledge such facts requires an understanding of what marriage is.

6. Jim Crow laws were meant to divide the races, but marriage law unites men to women and children to their parents. Marriage has everything to do with uniting the two halves of humanity—men and women, as husbands and wives and as fathers and mothers—so that any children born of their union will know and be loved by the man and woman who gave them life. This is why principle-based policy has defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The argument over redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships is one over the nature of marriage. Same-sex marriage is the result of revisionism about marriage.

7. The Supreme Court was correct in striking down bans on interracial marriage but it should not redefine marriage. In Loving v. Virginia, the Court found bans on interracial marriage to be premised on “the doctrine of White Supremacy.”The Court found “no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification.” Indeed, earlier this summer, Judge Paul Niemeyer of the 4th Circuit Court explained that “Loving simply held that race, which is completely unrelated to the institution of marriage, could not be the basis of marital restrictions.” But this does not require redefining marriage. Niemeyer concludes: “To stretch Loving’s holding to say that the right to marry is not limited by gender and sexual orientation is to ignore the inextricable, biological link between marriage and procreation that the Supreme Court has always recognized.”

Given that our current debates are nothing like the debates over interracial marriage, here are three action items:

1. Marriage policy should be worked out by the people. Judges should not insert their own policy preferences about marriage and declare them to be required by the Constitution. The courts should uphold the freedom of the American people and their elected representatives to make marriage policy. We do not need a court-imposed 50-state solution. The courts should not force states to abandon caution in the face of a social experiment like the redefinition of marriage.

2. While Americans are free to live as they choose, no one should demand that government coerce others into celebrating their relationships. Whatever one believes about marriage and however government defines it, there is no compelling state interest in forcing every citizen to treat a same-sex relationship as a marriage when this would violate their religious or other conscientious beliefs.

3. Protecting religious liberty and the rights of conscience does not infringe on anyone’s sexual freedoms. It is reasonable for citizens to believe that marriage is the union of a man and woman. When citizens lead their lives and run their businesses in accord with this belief, they deny no one equality before the law. All Americans should remain free to believe and act in the public square based on their belief that marriage is the union of a man and woman without fear of government penalty.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Heritage Foundation.