An Exercise in Empathy

An Exercise in Empathy July 16, 2008

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.

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