By Miles Christian Daniels
“Activist judges” are at it again.
In a scene similar to that in Massachusetts just a year ago, last Friday a New York State Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples cannot be denied a marriage license, as the state constitution guarantees that all citizens must be receive equal treatment, including equal access to marriage.
At first it seemed Mayor Michael Bloomberg – up for re-election in November – was in support of the verdict. “Anybody should be allowed to marry anybody,” said Bloomberg. But then, in a paradoxical twist, Bloomberg announced the city would appeal the decision in order to get a definitive ruling from the courts.
So the win-one-lose-one saga continues.
And in the midst of this polarizing debate, IÕm reminded of a Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter.
This year will mark the thirty-eighth anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, a Supreme Court case many born post 1967 may not be aware of. In June of 1958, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter were married in Washington D.C. Upon their return to their home state of Virginia, the couple was arrested, convicted of a felony, and sentenced to a year in jail.
Their crime? Richard was white. Mildred was black.
The trial judge in the case, echoing a common sentiment of the time, proclaimed that:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, 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.” (Loving v. Virginia, U.S. Supreme Court, 1967)
Today, this declaration seems preposterous. But as I watched the state-of-the-union address last Tuesday night, the parallels between President Bush’s statement about gay marriage and what this trial judge proclaimed some thirty eight years ago, seemed alarmingly similar. After praising our “healthy economy” and outlining his plan for Social Security reform, Bush made his case for his opposition to gay marriage:
“So many of my generation, after a long journey, have come home to family and faith, and are determined to bring up responsible, moral children. Government is not the source of these values, but government should never undermine them. Because marriage is a sacred institution and the foundation of society, it should not be redefined by activist judges. For the good of families, children and society, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage.” (President George W. Bush, State of the Union, February 1, 2005)
Or, I support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
A few days ago, while taking a subway train to my office, a self-proclaimed African American preacher stood up from his seat to vocalize his disgust with the gay marriage ruling in New York. As I listened to his barrage of hurtful accusations, I wondered if he had forgotten that ministers like Jerry Falwell – and many others – had once preached a similar message. Only then, it was directed to those who walked in his shoes.
Although many wince at the notion, gay people in their fight to obtain legal recognition as couples, are fighting a civil rights battle. Some African American leaders, like Rev. Jesse Jackson, would argue that the two cannot be compared. I say they can. The common denominator is prejudice.
John Lewis, an African American member of Congress, feels the same.
“Marriage is a basic human right. You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say when people talked about interracial marriage, and I quote, “Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.” (Testimony of Rep. John Lewis of Georgia before Congress on the Defense of Marriage Act, 7/1/96)
Marriage is a personal decision that belongs to the two consenting adults, not to the government, not to George W. Bush. But because the committed relationships of gay people are not recognized by law, they are denied the basic rights and protections that married couples enjoy. A gay couple should have the right to visit a partner in a hospital, designate an heir, or take bereavement or sick leave.
Right now, these rights are not an option.
So, as we all pause this month to remember the likes of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Daisy Bates and The Little Rock Nine, and Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, I’m hopeful that each will also pause to consider, or re-consider, the civil rights issue currently at hand.