An Exercise in Empathy

In 1967, Mildred Loving and her husband Richard, an interracial couple, were arrested at their Virginia home for violating that state’s anti-miscegenation law. At trial, Judge Leon Bazile offered his explanation for why the state of Virginia had chosen to ban interracial marriage:

“Almighty God 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.”

The Lovings pled guilty and were sentenced to a year in prison, which sentence Bazile suspended on the condition that they not return to Virginia for 25 years. The Lovings later appealed, and the case finally worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1967, that Court issued a unanimous ruling in the case of Loving v. Virginia that struck down all bans on interracial marriage. (This reversed earlier decisions, such as the 1883 case Pace v. Alabama, that upheld such laws.) Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion:

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.

We should bear in mind these bold words today, where an almost identical controversy is playing itself out all over again. This time, the victims of prejudice are gays and lesbians, rather than blacks or people of mixed race. Just like the civil rights campaigners of yesterday, they seek nothing more than the freedom to marry the people they love; just like the civil rights campaigners of yesterday, they face hatred and prejudice from bigots who seek to impose their own set of ugly and irrational beliefs on everyone. And just like the civil rights campaigners of yesterday, these irrational beliefs are often justified by appealing to the supposed will of God.

Religious conservatives argue that laws forbidding gay marriage do not discriminate unfairly against homosexuals, because they possess the same right as everyone else: to marry someone of the opposite gender. Virtually identical reasoning was once employed by religious conservatives to argue for anti-miscegenation laws: that they are not discriminatory because they limit the freedom of whites and blacks alike. Most of those who oppose gay marriage do their best to steer away from this parallel, or to draw the obvious lesson it implies.

I’ve always supported marriage equality, but in light of my own recent engagement, I’ve had an epiphany that’s made me feel its importance more keenly than ever before. My question is this: Why hasn’t anyone ever suggested that atheists should be forbidden to marry Christians?

If you’re going to make laws based on the majority’s religious beliefs, this one is a no-brainer. The Bible explicitly says, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). And surely, if one believes that America is a “Christian nation”, then we should be protecting marriage for its ability to bring about more Christian babies. Encouraging atheists to procreate would mean “changing the definition” of what marriage has always been about, and would be an insult to America’s fictitious religious heritage!

Of course, there is no organized movement demanding this. But under different historical circumstances, I could readily see it happening, driven by the same forces that are driving opposition to gay marriage now. And just contemplating the idea, even knowing that no one is advocating it, is like feeling a hand clamping on my throat.

I’m an atheist, and my fiancee is not, but it’s never come between us. If the two of us have decided together that our love outweighs whatever differences we have, that we’re willing to commit to spending our lives together – then that is our decision to make. How could anyone else ever have the knowledge or the right to push that decision aside and overrule us?

I can all too easily imagine how I would feel if some bigot who’s never met either of us started slandering the genuineness and legitimacy of our relationship, demanding that we be prevented from marrying because we do not fit his blinkered conception of what an ideal relationship should be. I can imagine the sheer paralyzing shock, like being plunged into an icy pool, at the idea of a perfect stranger who is nevertheless deeply opposed to our being together and hates us for nothing more than who we are.

Jonathan Rauch’s article on why gay marriage is good for America aptly describes this legal netherworld in which most American gay couples are forced to exist. We atheists should always bear in mind that it’s only a quirk of history that we’re not in their place. And that knowledge, in turn, should inspire in us the empathy to stand by them in their struggle. Struggles for liberty and equality have been won in the past, and we can win this one as well, if people of conscience and principle are willing to join the battle for what is right.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Polly

    I’m an atheist, and my fiancee is not

    Do we get to call ourselves “inter-faith couples”? Does the term apply if one partner doesn’t have faith?

    I’ve posted comments on other sites detailing why I think gay marriage can enforce hetero marriage. I don’t want to go into it, but in a nutshell it further solidifies the structural incentives and expectations of society that says two people need to be coupled together. We, the married, are getting a potential 10% boost to our particular demogrpahic (in CA). So, all the talk about gay marriage ruining hetero marriage is, IMO, back-assward.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I’ve always used the term “interfaith relationship,” and I’ll keep using it until someone comes up with a better one. It conveys the point well enough.

    Call me cynical, but I’d think that people who sang the praises of marriage as often as the religious right would want to see more marriages, not less. Their summations of the benefits that marriage provides to society are all quite accurate, which makes it all the more irrational that they want to make the set of people who qualify as small as possible.

  • bestonnet

    I suspect part of the reason that inter-faith marriages aren’t banned is the simple fact that it is harder to tell them apart from same-faith marriages whilst same-sex marriages and inter-racial marriages can be quite easily distinguished from opposite-sex same-race marriages (to the point at which there’d be no room for dispute as to whether the law was violated).

    Ebonmuse:

    Call me cynical, but I’d think that people who sang the praises of marriage as often as the religious right would want to see more marriages, not less. Their summations of the benefits that marriage provides to society are all quite accurate, which makes it all the more irrational that they want to make the set of people who qualify as small as possible.

    They seem to want to restrict marriage to those who they like (i.e. make marriage a Christian privilege).

  • Nightcap

    It should be noted that the incidence of divorce is highest in the Bible Belt. The state with the lowest rate of divorce is gay-marriage-supporting Massachusetts.

    As to being unequally yoked, my beloved was kind enough not to discuss her deep misgivings, and actually went so far as to be received into my church, because it was important to me. There’s an exercise in empathy for you!

  • goyo

    This is a great post. I have been observing how attitudes about homosexuality have slowly been changing over the years. For example, during the 50′s and 60′s, homosexuality was in the closet, and for anyone to even suggest two people of the same sex would unite in a “civil union” would have been unthinkable.
    Now, most people will accept the civil union, but won’t go so far as to accept gay marriage.
    So, I guess this too, will change.
    And even the reason that people oppose this union, namely, that gay people can’t have children, is solved by adoption.

  • Mercredi

    So, I’ve discovered that a lot of people can’t seem to wrap their heads around the concept of interfaith marriages actually happening. It’s really interesting that even a reasonably educated and overall fairly liberal group of people can suddenly start behaving as if it’s a purely hypothetical possibility, and not something that actually happens. “Um, er, interfaith marriage? Well, I suppose in THEORY it could work between a messianic Jew and a Christian, and maybe Catholics and Episcopalians, but in reality there would be too many conflicts for anything else” is something I hear fairly often on the subject, even from friends who _know_ that I have a Jewish father and an ostensibly-Catholic mother. It’s as if their critical thinking walks out the door the moment the word “interfaith” is uttered.

    I’m honestly not sure what’s more annoying to me on a personal level – that behavior and the implication that I do not exist, or the people who are genuinely hostile to Jew/Gentile interfaith marriage, and by extension my existence.

  • Ric

    Yes, bestonnet has it right: the clear reason is that one can’t tell an atheist just by looking at him. And good thing too, or else there would be a lot more violence (and laws) against atheists and atheism.

    and Ebon, you’re a better man than I. I would have trouble dating a believer. All of the women who have played serious romantic roles in my life have been at the least agnostic. And the reason for this is not that I am a bigot, for I don’t rule out at the offset dating a believer; it’s just that generally I have found that I don’t have enough in common with them.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    My wife’s pastor tried to get her not to marry me using the Corintians quote. She usually agrees with everything he says, but not that one time.

    Pastors generally think I’m evil and going to take her down to hell with me…

  • Kaltrosomos

    Do you mind if I ask what denomination your fiance is, Ebon?

  • Polly

    Inquiring minds want to know. I think everyone is curious.

  • Alex Weaver

    And even the reason that people oppose this union, namely, that gay people can’t have children, is solved by adoption.

    That’s not the real reason ANYONE opposes sex-neutral marriage laws.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I don’t mind at all, Kaltrosomos – she explains it in a comment from April on another post.

  • Juan Felipe

    Almost nobody today is against inter-racial marriage. But I can believe that a real judge actually didn’t notice that, if God really wanted races not to mix, a biological separation would have been much more effective that a geographical one.

    Other than that, the Judge’s Quote thing is really interesting; if you replace “races” with “genders” and “different continents” with something body related you will be unable to distinguish it from modern day anti-gay arguments. I think that a parallel comparing old anti interracial rhetoric with modern anti gay marriage rhetoric would make a terrific post.

  • Virginia

    Most discrimination practices based on race, religion, sexual orientation, are only based on the Bible which bears little or no consideration to exactly what good or bad will the contrary bring about.
    Same-sex marriage, those anti-gay people claim, will undermine “their” version of God ordained system of family because they thought that a system of family shall allow only one form of marriage, and that allow same-sex marriage, will open doors for marriage between siblings, fathers&daughers, mothers&sons….
    Surely, if each of those scenario are considered separately, delibrated and debated, we won’t necessarily end up the case we have marriages of all shapes!

  • bestonnet

    Mercredi:

    So, I’ve discovered that a lot of people can’t seem to wrap their heads around the concept of interfaith marriages actually happening.

    Interfaith marriages do have a higher failure rate but that doesn’t stop them happening (and many of the people in them do figure out how to make them work, somehow).

    Alex Weaver:

    goyo:
    And even the reason that people oppose this union, namely, that gay people can’t have children, is solved by adoption.

    That’s not the real reason ANYONE opposes sex-neutral marriage laws.

    I agree (although many of the people who oppose gay marriage are consider a coathanger the only legitimate means of birth control so the inability of gays to have children may be a part of it) although it should come as no surprise that the people against gay-marriage also tend to be against allowing gays to adopt (some of them would ban IVF and have heterosexual Christian parents do all the adopting).

  • velkyn

    heck, Christians are already trying to stop any one who doesn’t follow their narrow view of one sect of one religion from offically being married.

    “The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed the first three lawsuits today in a planned statewide challenge of a recent judicial declaration stating that marriages are invalid if presided over by a minister who does not regularly serve a church or preach in a physical house of worship. The ruling potentially endangers thousands of marriages in Pennsylvania.

    “What we want is to fix a problem that never should have existed in the first place,” said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The state has no business invalidating marriages just because it doesn’t like the kind of minister who officiated them.”

    http://www.aclu.org/religion/gen/34120prs20080214.html

  • El T

    Judge Bazile’s ignorant of human evolution is very obvious here. There was no separate “racial creation”. The so-called racial differences among various human populations around the world are of very recent origin. The ease of inter-fertility among the different populations is an example of this.

  • John Hodges

    Dad was Episcopalian, Mother was Baptist; I grew up knowing that religion was a matter of personal choice. Went through a series of religions in my late teens/early 20′s, settled on atheism at 30.

    I’ve long suspected the REAL reason for the hysterical opposition to gay marriage is the desire to uphold male supremacy. A same-sex marriage is inherently an equal marriage (any inequalities are clearly due to individual differences, not the institution.) Male Conservatives are afraid that if straight women see equal marriages existing, they may get funny ideas that their own marriages could/should be equal also.

  • bestonnet

    There are already a lot of heterosexual marriages that are equal (and even some where it could be said the woman dominates).

    As for the real reason, I wouldn’t be surprised if part of it is that some religions just need a group to hate.

  • velkyn

    In my experiences, most religions, especially the ones based on the Bible, need that “other” that is “evil” to keep its power. “We are the “good” ones and to remain that way, you must follow “X” deity” (and me the priest).

  • bugseyeview

    I will reiterate what I say elsewhere. You cannot use the bible to justify some forms of marriage – but ignore the bible’s other imperatives.

    For example, everyone is well aware of the plural marriages of the ‘old testament’ gentlemen (strictly one way in the Bible). No injunction whatever. In fact, there seemed to be (on my reading) a tacit, if not absolute approval of same.

    So why not plural marriage too (if gay marriage is so good for the country)? Don’t you think that those ‘outlaw’ Mormon sects feel a little disenfranchised as well? Living outside the law, performing illegal acts…

    If a religion uses the bible, and the bible accepts (thus approves of) plural marriage, then it should be A-OK to have plural marriage by the churches, if that who ‘governs’ it. But it is not….

    It is disallowed by Rule of Law. So much for non interference in Church by State.

    My question is: Why get married? Unless you want to share benefits, but fewer and fewer companies are providing benefits (except at very high cost) to ‘mates’. Or you have some superstitious need for it. I think that Civil Union ought to be universal, in some restricted form such as “one person to one person”, same legal protection that married couples receive.

    I think that marriage shouldn’t mean a damned thing legally it should remain ‘churchy’. If people want legal protection they should have to ‘register’ with a civil union. THAT would keep a clear line between church/state. (But I don’t run the Universe. Yet)

    Plural marriage makes me queasy in a social sense, but not a legal one. One rich guy sucking up all of the nubile young women. Women marry to gain status, and money=status, men marry for reproductive potential, meaning young, nubile and physically pleasing.? Lots of testosterone soaked young men with no where to ‘put it’, and no hope of ever having a women of their own. Powderkeg.

    I’ve read some articles about China’s policy of one child being a real problem in the future… Girl babies are aborted, killed, left by the road-side. Boy children, are valued, so guess what has happened? We’ll see in about 10 years… Fewer girls could mean plural marriage, but like nothing the bible has seen! Heheheh!

  • bestonnet

    bugseyeview:

    My question is: Why get married? Unless you want to share benefits, but fewer and fewer companies are providing benefits (except at very high cost) to ‘mates’. Or you have some superstitious need for it. I think that Civil Union ought to be universal, in some restricted form such as “one person to one person”, same legal protection that married couples receive.

    Why have civil unions if they are the same thing as a marriage?

    Marriage is meant to be about two people who love each other making it a commitment. In no way is it a religious custom.

    bugseyeview:

    I think that marriage shouldn’t mean a damned thing legally it should remain ‘churchy’. If people want legal protection they should have to ‘register’ with a civil union. THAT would keep a clear line between church/state. (But I don’t run the Universe. Yet)

    Which would mean that atheists can’t get married.

    What you are proposing is to make something non-religious the monopoly of the religious, getting rid of religious privilege is one of the most important things that needs to be done and adding a new one is not the way to go about that.

    bugseyeview:

    Plural marriage makes me queasy in a social sense, but not a legal one. One rich guy sucking up all of the nubile young women. Women marry to gain status, and money=status, men marry for reproductive potential, meaning young, nubile and physically pleasing.? Lots of testosterone soaked young men with no where to ‘put it’, and no hope of ever having a women of their own. Powderkeg.

    There is a correlation with increased crime rate when polygyny occurs.

    In societies in which women can’t support themselves (and therefore have to rely on a husband) sharing a rich guy with multiple other wives will often result in more resources than exclusivity with the poor guy. Allowing women to make a living on their own seems to reduce acceptance of the practice.

    bugseyeview:

    I’ve read some articles about China’s policy of one child being a real problem in the future… Girl babies are aborted, killed, left by the road-side. Boy children, are valued, so guess what has happened? We’ll see in about 10 years… Fewer girls could mean plural marriage, but like nothing the bible has seen! Heheheh!

    Probably not, though there will be a lot of competition among males for a wife to the point at which they’ll accept almost anything. Some countries have already been having the dowries paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family because of the shortage of human females.

    Interestingly if sex selection became big in the west there would probably be an oversupply of girls although I doubt women raised in western societies would really want to marry into one of the ones with a shortage of girls.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X