Marriage activists mark Loving anniversary
by Bob Roehr
Advocates for gay and lesbian equal rights to marriage Tuesday, June 12 celebrated the 40th anniversary of the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision of Loving v. Virginia, which struck down the last remaining state laws banning interracial marriage.
The activities included a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington; launching a video on YouTube by the National Black Justice Coalition; and a Capitol Hill briefing and reception for Congress members and their staffs.
Richard and Mildred Loving went to Washington, D.C., in 1958 to marry because they were in love and Virginia, where they lived, prohibited their marriage. Richard was white and Mildred of African American and American Indian heritage. They did not intend to make a political statement. But one night as they slept at home in their bed, the couple were awakened and arrested, charged with violating the Virginia marriage law. They were sentenced to one year in prison. The Lovings appealed their conviction and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor on June 12, 1967.
Mildred Loving has always shied away from the role of an activist. Now aging and infirmed, she declined an invitation to participate in the Washington news conference but she did provide a statement for the event. Richard Loving died in a 1975 car accident.
"My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right," she said in the statement. "The majority believed what the [trial] judge said, that it was God's plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes.
"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 that 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," she wrote.
Among those on hand Tuesday were San Francisco residents Stuart Gaffney and his longtime partner, John Lewis. Gaffney, who is biracial, has long used the example of his parents when discussing the fight for marriage equality.
When the California Supreme Court declared that state's interracial marriage law unconstitutional in 1948, it said, "The essence of the right to marry is the freedom to marry the person you choose, the person who is irreplaceable to you."
Dr. Estelle Lau, Gaffney's mother, is Chinese and was not able to marry her Caucasian husband until that law was struck down. Even after marrying, when the couple moved to Missouri, that marriage was deemed illegal.
Gaffney and Lewis were one of the first couples to marry at San Francisco City Hall in February 2004. They are plaintiffs in the lawsuit that seeks to strike down the prohibition on same-sex marriage as a violation of the California Constitution.
Some of the speakers Tuesday decried how religion has been used in the fight against same-sex marriage as well as other issues over the years.
"Religious teachings and beliefs have been misused to deny American citizens their fundamental rights and freedom to marry the person they love. The United States Constitution has been compromised by prejudice in the name of religion," said Mitchell Gold, the founder of the group Faith in America.
"Religion has been used in our history to support slavery, racial segregation, and deny women the right to vote. Today, we know that use of religion was misguided and wrong," said the Reverend Irene Monroe. "The use of religion to deny same-sex couples the freedom to marry, with all of its important protections and responsibilities, is no less wrong."
Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), the only out lesbian serving in Congress, said, "In our nation's long march toward equality, Loving v. Virginia is truly a landmark." She called the decision "a beacon of hope" in the LGBT struggle for marriage equality.
The decision personally resonates with her because "my American Jewish grandfather married my British Anglican grandmother and brought her to this country at the onset of World War II. If it were not for the Loving decision, it would have broken the law in many states when their daughter met and married an African American man who became my stepfather."
"Today, I, as a lesbian, am not allowed to enjoy the same rights, to marry my life partner because of societal taboos, homophobia fears against same-sex marriage that are untenable today," Baldwin said.
Gold added, "Too often at the intersection of faith and politics we find discrimination. We want to open up the conversation and remind people of the history of this country of discrimination, often time at its core, people found religious beliefs. Those religious beliefs cannot dictate civil law."
Alexander Robinson, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, read a statement from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It argued, "The basic 14th Amendment principles that apply to Loving should be applied to any state effort to deny any person the right to marry the person he or she loves."
In a video created by the coalition, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said, "Marriage is a civil ceremony that apportions some rights and responsibilities to both parties. I ought not be denied that simply because of someone else's religious bigotry."
"If for some reason you don't want me to marry in your church, that's okay, it's your church. But don't bring your religious bigotry into city hall. Everyone has a right to marry the person of their choice," Bond said in the video.
Jon Davidson, legal director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, reminded those in attendance that it often takes failure â€“ courts in 14 states had rejected a challenge to interracial marriage laws prior to the Loving decision â€“ but advocates kept pressing "until the arguments against the freedom to marry the person of one's choice were recognized as unworthy of our great nation."
"Equality doesn't just happen," Davidson said. "Equality can become a reality, rather than just a dream, only through the efforts of many."
Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry, said, "America is involved in a civil rights conversation right now across kitchen tables, courts, and legislatures as people grapple with the questions we have addressed here today. It begins with understanding that real people's lives are at stake."
The three-minute video can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/NCBJDC.