Marriage is an institution created and regulated by the law; as such, the government is able to set certain restrictions on who can get married. But just how far should that ability extend? Is marriage a basic civil right, even though it is not mentioned in the Constitution, or should the government be able to interfere with and regulate it in any manner that it wants?
In the case of Loving v. Virginia, the state of Virginia tried to argue that they had the authority to regulate marriage according to what a majority of the state's citizens believed was the will of God when it came to what was proper and moral. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an interracial couple who argued that marriage is a basic civil right that cannot be denied to people on the basis of classifications like race.
Fast Facts: Loving v. Virginia
- Case Argued: April 10, 1967
- Decision Issued: June 12, 1967
- Petitioner: Loving et ux
- Respondent: State of Virginia
- Key Question: Did Virginia's anti-miscegenation law banning interracial marriage violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
- Unanimous Decision: Justices Warren, Black, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, and Fortas
- Ruling: The court ruled that “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.” The Virginia law was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
According to the Virginia Racial Integrity Act:
If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.
In June, 1958 two residents of Virginia - Mildred Jeter, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man - went to the District of Columbia and were married, after which they returned to Virginia and established a home. Five weeks later, the Lovings were charged with violating Virginia's ban on interracial marriages. On January 6, 1959, they pleaded guilty and were sentenced to one year in jail. Their sentence, however, was suspended for a 25 year period on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return together for 25 years.
According to the trial judge:
Almighty created the races white, black, yellow, malay 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.
Frightened and unaware of their rights, they moved to Washington, D.C., where they lived in financial difficulty for 5 years. When they returned to Virginia to visit Mildred's parents, they were arrested again. While released on bail they wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, asking for help.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the law against interracial marriages violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment. The Court had previously been hesitant to address this issue, fearing that striking down such laws so soon after striking down segregation would only further inflame resistance in the South to racial equality.
The state government argued that because whites and blacks were treated equally under the law, there was therefore no Equal Protection violation; but the Court rejected this. They also argued that ending these miscegenation laws would be contrary to the original intent of those who wrote the Fourteenth Amendment.
However, the Court held:
As for the various statements directly concerning the Fourteenth Amendment, we have said in connection with a related problem, that although these historical sources "cast some light" they are not sufficient to resolve the problem; "at best, they are inconclusive. The most avid proponents of the post-War Amendments undoubtedly intended them to remove all legal distinctions among 'all persons born or naturalized in the United States.' Their opponents, just as certainly, were antagonistic to both the letter and the spirit of the Amendments and wished them to have the most limited effect.
Although the state also argued that they have a valid role in regulating marriage as a social institution, the Court rejected the idea that the state's powers here were limitless. Instead, the Court found the institution of marriage, while social in nature, is also a basic civil right and cannot be restricted without very good reason:
Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival. ()… 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.
Significance and Legacy
Although a right to marry is not listed in the Constitution, the Court held that such a right is covered under the Fourteenth Amendment because such decisions are fundamental to our survival and our consciences. As such, they must necessarily reside with the individual rather than with the state.
This decision is thus a direct refutation to the popular argument that something cannot be a legitimate constitutional right unless it is spelled out specifically and directly in the text of the U.S. Constitution. It is also one of the most important precedents on the very notion of civil equality, making clear that basic civil rights are fundamental to our existence and cannot legitimately be infringed upon simply because some people believe that their god disagrees with certain behaviors.