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A Marriage Story, In Black, White, and Color

By Neetal Parekh on October 19, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It is the late 1950's.   A Caucasian man proposes marriage to his future wife, a part-African American, part-Cherokee woman in Virginia.  The two decide to wed in the country's capital before settling down in their home state.  Instead of congratulation and celebration, their marriage is met by arrest and lawsuit for violating state law prohibiting interracial marriage.  The couple, Mildred and Richard Loving, briefly relocated to Washington D.C. to escape with stipulation of their sentences before returning to Virginia to fight the state's interracial marriage ban and make history in the process.  The now-famous Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia of 1967 established the legal right of interracial marriage, by finding state laws banning the practice to go against the grain of the U.S. Constitution.

Fast forward a half-century to southeastern Louisiana.  An African American man plans marriage with his Caucasian fiancée.  The local justice of the peace, an elected officer, refuses to perform the marriage.  The facts are different, and yet the issue of restricting interracial marriage is once again brought to main stage.

The argument

The justice of the peace, Keith Bardwell, claims that his refusal, an action he has exercised before in his 30+ year career in the position, stems from his desire to spare any children the couple may have from being shunned by society. 

The reaction

The couple, the public, and civil rights organizations are not impressed with the reasoning.

Despite the fact that millions of Americans, including the country's president, are the products of interracial unions, the refusal to perform the marriage ceremony has been a reality check that racism-- unequal decisions made solely on the basis of race-- still exists.  In this case, the legal challenge brought by the Lovings established definitive law to ban marriage discrimination based on race. 

Efforts are mobilizing to take action.  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and state Senator Mary Landrieu have called on the elected official to step down, and/or for disciplinary measures be taken to remove him from his post.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights and Justice also seek Bardwell's resignation.  And the couple is contemplating legal action.

The law

The language of Loving v. Virginia clearly delineates the law on marriage.  Here are a few notable passages from the landmark case:

"There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause."

"The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men."

"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 discriminations."

"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."


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