A Historical Look at Marriage
Abraham Husband with Harem Child Brides Woman with Dowry Loving v. VA Husbands
Marriage - An Evolving Institution
Over the ages there have been myriad changes within, and to, the institution of civil marriage. Marriage is definitely not a static institution, nor is it viewed or experienced the same way in every era, class or culture, or by people of different generations. Throughout world history (including American history), wives were considered the property of a man, with no rights to their children's legal guardianship or property. In Roman society, only the upper one-third of Roman citizens even had the legal right to marry. The early Christian church had no specific rite for marriage. This was left up to the secular authorities of the Roman Empire, since marriage was a legal concern for the legitimacy of heirs. Christians originally thought marriage was a tainted institution and didn't declare it a sacrament until the 13th century. At the same time, there is much eveidence that the early Church did sanction same-sex unions. In the U.S., couples could only seek divorce because of "marital crime" until the mid-19th century.
Some of us have seen changes to the institution of marriage during our lifetimes. In the U.S. the status of women within marriage has changed and continues to evolve to reflect the equality of spouses and of the male and female genders, as well as the fluidity of gender-roles. The status of ending a marriage changed with the Supreme Court's recognition that states have to honor each other's divorces. And, the eligibility to marry the person of one's choosing, particularly based on race, presented a farily recent and vivid example of change to the legal institution of marriage.
Discrimination or Preservation
Groups of citizens have always been barred from or restricted in marriage by our government. When a government restricts an entire group of adults from marriage, it is establishing a form of 'social control'.
For instance, slaves were not permitted to marry as they were considered "property." Asians and Native Americans were not permitted to marry in the early years of the U.S. Interracial couples were not permitted to marry in some states until as late as 1967. Today, same-sex couples, no matter how long they have been together, are unable to enter into civil marriages.
Fear of past changes in marriage laws have brought up age-old predictions of ruination, criminality and worse. Can you guess which groups the following quotes refer to?
- These types of marriages are "abominable," according to Virginia law. If allowed, they would "pollute" America. [click for answer]
- During a vote on a proposed law, a New York legislator pleaded, "If any single thing should remain untouched by the hand of the reformer, it was the sacred institution of marriage [which] was about to be destroyed in one thoughtless blow that might produce change in all phases of domestic life." [click for answer]
- In denying the appeal of this type of couple that had tried unsuccessfully to marry, a Georgia court wrote that such unions are "not only unnatural, but … always productive of deplorable results," such as increased effeminate behavior in the population. "They are productive of evil, and evil only, without any corresponding good (in accordance with) the God of nature." [click for answer]
At one point, 40 states in this country forbade the marriage of a white person to a person of color. In other words, people could not marry a person of the "wrong" race. Marriages between whites and persons of color were decried as "immoral" and "unnatural". Overwhelming numbers of Americans agreed. A Virginia Judge upheld that State's ban on interracial marriages saying, in a language with the same rhetorical tone as used against gay people today:
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And 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."
Despite the public opposition to interracial marriage, in 1948, the California Supreme Court led the way in challenging racial discrimination in marriage and became the first state high court to declare unconstitutional a ban on interracial marriage. Perez v. Lippold, 32 Cal.2d 711 (1948). The Court pointed out that races don't marry each other, people do. Restricting who can marry whom based on that characteristic alone was therefore race discrimination. The court decision was controversial, courageous and correct: at that time, 38 states still forbade interracial marriage, and 6 did so by state constitutional provision.
Loving v. Virginia
In the middle of the night, in 1958, in the bedroom of their Virginia home, newlyweds Richard and Mildred Loving, a European-American man and an African-American woman, awakened to blinding flashlights and police. The couple was arrested. The charge: violating the ban on marriage for interracial couples. Although it was just a generation ago, that kind of law existed in Virginia and in many states.
Facing a felony conviction and the possibility of up to five years in prison, the Lovings originally pled guilty. They received a one-year jail sentence -- suspended on the condition that they leave the state and not return together for 25 years. The Lovings appealed their case and, nearly a decade after their arrest, the United States Supreme Court held that "racial hygiene" laws that existed in Virginia and 15 other states unconstitutionally sought to interfere with a person's right to marry the partner of her or his choice.
Pre-Loving, states defended laws against interracial marriage as vital to protect "the natural order of things." Virginia's anti-miscegenation law read: "All marriages between a white person and a colored person shall be absolutely void without any decree of divorce or other legal process."
In 1967, the United States Supreme Court struck down the remaining interracial marriage laws across the country and declared that the "freedom to marry" belongs to all Americans. Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 12 (1967). The Court described marriage as one of our "vital personal rights" which is "essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by a free people". Click here for the Loving v. Virginia decision.
Zablocki v. Redhail
In 1978, the United States Supreme Court declared marriage to be "of fundamental importance to all individuals". The court described marriage as "one of the 'basic civil rights of man'" and "the most important relation in life." The court also noted that "the right to marry is part of the fundamental 'right to privacy'" in the U.S. Constitution.
Baker v. Nelson
Considered by some to be "the first" same-sex marriage case, a gay male couple argued that the absence of sex-specific language in the Minnesota statute was evidence of the legislature's intent to authorize same-sex marriages. The couple also claimed that prohibiting them from marrying was a denial of their due process and equal protection rights under the Constitution. The court simply stated "we do not find support for [these arguments] in any decision of the United States Supreme Court."
Turner v. Safley
Over time, restrictions on marriage have become more and more suspect. In 1987, the last time the Supreme Court of the United States prior to the DOMA and Prop 8 cases in 2013, considered the claim of a group of Americans about restriction on their right to marry, the Court articulated four attributes of marriage common to this group and all other Americans. These attributes are:
- expression of emotional support and public commitment;
- spiritual significance, and for some the exercise of a religious faith;
- the expectation that for most, the marriage will be consummated; and
- the receipt of tangible benefits, including government benefits and property rights.
Looking at these attributes of marriage, the Court decided that these Americans - incarcerated prisoners - shared with other Americans the freedom to marry. Because prisoners, too, can enter into a marriage with these characteristics, the Court invalidated Missouri's' virtually complete ban on marriages of prison inmates. Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 94 (1987).
The analogies are clear. Restricting who can marry whom based on their sex and sexual orientation is discrimination. Creating a civil institution which is available to all committed adults -- even if they are incarcerated prisoners -- is essential for the happiness of everyone, including same-sex couples. Perhaps that is why civil rights leaders like Coretta Scott King and United States Representative John Lewis of Georgia endorsed the right to civil marriage for same-sex couples. On 19 May 2012 the national NAACP endorsed the right of same-sex couples to legal, civil marriage and stated that marriage is a civil right.