For years I have watched the right respond to the debate over same-sex marriage by throwing out the NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association)-Bestiality card. The argument basically goes that if gay marriage is a form of non-traditional marriage, legalizing it begins the slippery slope to other forms of non-traditional marriage, thereby opening the door for people to marry children and animals.
The fundamental flaws with that analogy are plenty, starting with the problem of consensual relations, which neither a child nor animal can grant.
But the right actually has a much bigger problem, both on the same-sex marriage front and the religious freedom front – interracial marriage. While opponents of same-sex marriage like to point to “traditional” marriage as being between a man and wife, in point of fact in this country traditional marriage was actually defined as being between a man and a woman of the same race.
In fact, the parallels do not end there. While one can rightly argue that both gender and race are immutable traits, the choice to marry someone of another race is just that – a choice.
So the question is, if you have a Christian who believes it part of Christian doctrine to prohibit interracial marriages, would that kind of discrimination be permissible and acceptable under religious freedom? If not, how do you draw the line between people who believe it is a sin to marry someone of one’s own gender and those who believe it is a sin to marry a person of another race?
This is not just a hypothetical either. There is a long history in this country of prohibitions and taboo against interracial marriage. In fact, one of the greatest sins in the Old South was a black man having relations with a white woman. It would almost certainly get him thrown in jail and lynched by a white mob.
For a long time, Christians in this country believed that the Bible proscribed interracial marriage. This is not in a distant past either.
It was not until 1967 that the US Supreme Court finally declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Despite that, Alabama kept a law on the books until 2000.
Polling done back in 2011 performed by Public Policy Polling found that 46 percent of likely Republican primary voters in Mississippi believed that interracial marriage should be illegal, compared to 40 percent who said it should be legal. Fourteen more percent were undecided. Similar findings would appear in Alabama.
Back in 1980, just three percent of couples were of mixed race, according to census data. Thirty years later, the number was still relatively low, but had increased to 1 in 12. I remember in a class in high school, we watched a recording of a TV show ‒ I think it was Geraldo ‒ and he had on these white supremacists. The white supremacists put it to the audience members that, if they are so much for equality, would they want their daughters to marry a black person. I was surprised to see that the answer from one was that marriage was different than basic rights about non-discrimination. The show was recorded was from the late 1980s, but my guess was that it demonstrated that even whites in the 1980s who were adamantly supportive of equal rights, and appalled by the white supremacist position, were nevertheless uncomfortable with intermarriage.
While intermarriage and same-sex marriage seem to share a number of similar traits, not everyone agrees that the two issues are so parallel. Ross Douthat, a conservative New York Times columnist, argued in a recent column that the “debate about race was very specific to America, modernity, the South.” He added, “Bans on interracial marriage were generally a white supremacist innovation, not an inheritance from Christendom or common law.”
He continued, “The slave owners and segregationists had scriptural arguments, certainly. But they were also up against one of the Bible’s major meta-narratives — from the Israelites in Egypt to Saint Paul’s ‘neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.’”
There is a problem with that argument, even though I think he’s right in terms of the Bible’s view on interracial marriage – and that is it is not the authoritative word of the Bible, but rather the opinions of local churches and local adherents of the Bible.
Under Indiana law, no judge is going to scour the Bible, and bring in expert witnesses to determine the difference between an individual’s take on what the Bible tells them and official Biblical canon.
That is where the murkiness of the law comes into play. What is religious freedom and what is discrimination?
When in doubt, perhaps you can simply substitute the phrase “Interracial Marriage” for “Same-Sex Marriage” and determine if the practice is discriminatory.
I think you end up in a very different place:
Can a church legally prohibit an interracial couple from marrying? We see an article from November 2011 where one Kentucky church voted to ban interracial couples from its membership. That lasted about a month before the church overturned their decision.
Can a pizza place, on religious grounds, refuse to serve pizza to an interracial couple?
Can a cake company be compelled to write a message on their cake congratulating a couple on their interracial marriage?
Can a facility refuse to rent their facility to an interracial couple getting married?
The only substantial difference I can see between the two acts is that presently the churches believe that interracial marriage is not prohibited by the Bible but the churches believe that same-sex marriage is. However, in the recent past, and even the present, that has not always been the case.
The problem with defining religious freedom is who decides whether the practice adheres to the tenets of the religion or, in the case of interracial marriage, whether the churches (or religious leaders) are not in fact distorting the tenets for their own religious or political purposes.
—David M. Greenwald reporting