From the late 19th century until the late 1960s, interracial marriage was illegal in some American states. Today, many observers argue that laws that define marriage on the basis of sex are no different from those restricting it on the basis of race, and that those who support traditional marriage are on no better ground than those who supported bans on interracial marriage.
There are many responses to this argument. First, that bans on interracial marriage were a unique artifact of a specific place and time, whereas marriage as a man-woman institution has been nearly universal. Race is not an essential feature of marriage, whereas gender is. Even societies that historically embraced same-sex relationships treated them as distinct from marriage.
Many supporters of same-sex marriage in the United States object that restricting marriage to husband-wife couples is no different from 19th and 20th century restrictions on interracial marriage. In both cases, they say, the law discriminates against a particular class of people, whether that class is defined by race or sexual orientation.
Opposing same-sex marriage is not comparable to supporting bans on interracial marriage. This objection maligns those who support traditional marriage laws as aligning with racists of past decades, and as such constitutes a form of ad hominem argument used to dismiss the arguments against same-sex marriage without proper consideration. The best response to this objection was written by Ryan T. Anderson, and is republished in part below.
Bans on Interracial Marriage Are Not Comparable
[The following is reprinted in part with the permission of the author, Ryan T. Anderson. The original can be found here.]
1. Support for marriage as the union of man and woman has been a near human universal. Great thinkers throughout human history—and from every political community up until the year 2000—thought it reasonable to view marriage as the union of male and female, husband and wife, father and mother. That belief is shared by the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions; by ancient Greek and Roman thinkers untouched by these religions; and by various Enlightenment philosophers. It is affirmed by canon, common and civil law and by ancient Greek and Roman law.
2. Bans on interracial marriage and Jim Crow laws, by contrast, were historical anomalies. These bans were aspects of a much larger, insidious movement that denied the fundamental equality and dignity of all human beings and forcibly segregated citizens. When these interracial marriage bans first arose in the American colonies, they were inconsistent not only with the common law inherited from England, but also with the customs of prior world history, which had not banned interracial marriage. These bans were based not on reason, but on prejudiced ideas about race that emerged in the modern period and that refused to regard all human beings as equal. This led to revisionist, unreasonable conclusions about marriage policy.
3. Great thinkers—including champions of human rights—knew that gender matters for marriage, and none thought that race does. Searching the writings of Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Maimonides and Al-Farabi, Luther and Calvin, Locke and Kant, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., one finds that the sexual union of male and female goes to the heart of their reflections on marriage but that considerations of race with respect to marriage never appear. Only late in human history do political communities prohibit intermarriage on the basis of race. Bans on interracial marriage had nothing to do with the nature of marriage and everything to do with denying dignity and equality before the law.
4. Even cultures that embraced same-sex relationships did not treat them as marriages. Far from having been devised as a pretext for excluding same-sex relationships—as some now charge—marriage as the union of husband and wife arose in many places over several centuries entirely independent of, and well before any debates about, same-sex relationships. Indeed, it arose in cultures that had no concept of sexual orientation and in some that fully accepted homoeroticism and even took it for granted. Bans on interracial marriage, by contrast, were the result of racism and nothing more.
5. Marriage must be color-blind, but it cannot be gender-blind. The melanin content of two people’s skin has nothing to do with their capacity to unite in the bond of marriage as a comprehensive union naturally ordered to procreation. The sexual difference between a man and a woman, however, is central to what marriage is. Men and women regardless of their race can unite in marriage, and children regardless of their race deserve moms and dads. To acknowledge such facts requires an understanding of what marriage is.
6. Jim Crow laws were meant to divide the races, but marriage law unites men to women and children to their parents. Marriage has everything to do with uniting the two halves of humanity—men and women, as husbands and wives and as fathers and mothers—so that any children born of their union will know and be loved by the man and woman who gave them life. This is why principle-based policy has defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The argument over redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships is one over the nature of marriage. Same-sex marriage is the result of revisionism about marriage.
7. The Supreme Court was correct in striking down bans on interracial marriage but it should not redefine marriage. In Loving v. Virginia, the Court found bans on interracial marriage to be premised on “the doctrine of White Supremacy.” The Court found “no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification.” Indeed, earlier this summer, Judge Paul Niemeyer of the 4th Circuit Court explained that “Loving simply held that race, which is completely unrelated to the institution of marriage, could not be the basis of marital restrictions.” But this does not require redefining marriage. Niemeyer concludes: “To stretch Loving’s holding to say that the right to marry is not limited by gender and sexual orientation is to ignore the inextricable, biological link between marriage and procreation that the Supreme Court has always recognized.”
Ryan T. Anderson’s responses highlight that allowing interracial couples to marry does not change the fundamental nature of marriage as a civil institution, nor does it undermine the public interests that the state has in marriage. As we explain in other articles on this site (see, for example, the Argument from Marital Norms or the Argument from Public Interest), formalizing same-sex marriage does change the nature of marriage, and calls into question the very reasons the state is involved in the first place.