by Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director
Fifty years ago, the ACLU of Virginia embarked on one of the most important court cases of the civil rights movement, Loving v. Virginia, which established the right to marry a person of a different race. Today, as we celebrate the 47th anniversary of this landmark decision, we also look forward to the day when the right to marry extends to everyone.
The remarkable story of Mildred and Richard Loving is familiar but worth repeating. Mildred and Richard were from Virginia, but state law prohibited them from marrying there, simply because Mildred was African-American and Richard was white. They married in Washington, D.C., then returned to Virginia, where they were criminally prosecuted for living as husband and wife. They appealed their conviction to the Virginia Supreme Court, which found that the Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute was constitutional. The Lovings appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the law. (More on the Loving case can be found here and here.)
The Loving decision was a resounding victory for racial equality. It also reaffirmed the essential human right to marry the person of one’s choice. The Supreme Court called marriage one of the “basic civil rights of man” and a “fundamental freedom.” The Court concluded: “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.”
As many have noted, the parallels between the Loving case and the current fight for marriage equality are obvious. Indeed, Mildred Loving herself explained in a statement that gay couples’ struggle for the right to marry is an extension of her own:
Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.
In February, federal judge Arenda L. Wright Allen quoted Mildred Loving’s statement in her opinion striking down Virginia’s laws prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying. As Judge Wright Allen explained, many of the old arguments against interracial marriage have been recycled by today’s opponents of marriage equality. For example, she noted that in the Loving case, the state touted Virginia’s “tradition” of prohibiting interracial marriage, but “tradition alone cannot justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry any more than it could justify Virginia's ban on interracial marriage.”
Virginia’s segregationists also argued that there was something about interracial marriage that was “unnatural” or contrary to God’s will. The judge who convicted Richard and Mildred Loving wrote: “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."
It seems shocking to us now that a judge could state such views just a few short decades ago. But opponents of marriage equality continue to believe that their idea of what is “natural” should trump the right of every person to choose their spouse.
The tide is turning. Public opinion now supports marriage equality, and it is now the law of the land in nineteen states and the District of Columbia. Loving’s legacy is within reach.
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