Friday, May 16, 2008

Ending institutionalized prejudice

When I read recently about the passing of Mildred Loving, the woman at the center of the Supreme Court decision that overturned laws banning interracial marriage, the issue of gay marriage loomed in the background. Mrs. Loving and her white husband had been happily married in a small Virginia town, when a pre-dawn raid on their bedroom led to their arrests and subsequent ejection from the state. A couple of years after the couple moved to the District of Columbia, allowed to make only separate visits to their home town, the ACLU took their case to the courts.

The Supreme Court rightly struck down Virginia's miscegenation laws, and wrote the following in the opinion:

Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. 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.
I cannot but see the parallels between the right for interracial couples to marry, and the right for homosexual couples to marry. Marriage is an American institution, not one created by God, and should thus be extended to all Americans. Not even civil unions do the trick; history has shown us time and again that "separate but equal" is inherently unequal. The argument that the decision to allow gay marriages should belong to the voters is naive. The courts had to pave the way for black and white to marry, and will have to do the same for man and man, largely because of widespread prejudice that will one day be viewed as ignorant.

Yesterday's decision to overturn California's ban on gay marriage will bring the issue back into public view. There is an opportunity for the Democratic candidate to do the right thing - to publicly acknowledge that gay marriage does nothing to undermine the institution and should unequivocally be allowed. John McCain and his Republican colleagues will try to use gay marriage as a rallying point to get out the right-wing vote. I can only hope that public opinion sways toward the rational and the inclusive, and that the exclusionary laws banning gay marriage go the way of those fought by the Lovings.

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