Central Point, Virginia. 1958: Richard and Mildred Loving jailed. Their crime: marriage. He was white. She was black. “We were married on the second day of June. And the police came after us the fourteenth day of July,” Mildred Loving said in the documentary The Loving Story (HBO, 2011).
An anonymous tip sent police to their house in the middle of the night. Making love was a crime, too, for people of different races. The police found them sleeping. They were arrested for “cohabitating as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.”
Their marriage was illegal in 24 states in 1958.
Richard and Mildred pled guilty, and received a one-year prison sentence, which would be suspended if they left Virginia. They moved to Washington, D.C., sneaking home to see family and friends. Mildred wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy who referred her to the A.C.L.U. Richard told their lawyer, “Mr. Cohen, tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”
Love was not enough to mitigate the racial fear and hatred that resisted their union. It was not enough to unravel the complicated narrative of white supremacy that led to segregation, to Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws.
In Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision on June 12, 1967 held that the prohibition of biracial marriage was unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Earl Warren and the other justices claimed that “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival … 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.”
No matter what society asserts about race, no matter what religious institutions teach about race and no matter the ethnicity of the couple, marriage is a basic civil right.
The Supreme Court changed the narrative, changed the story. And it changed the culture. According to a Pew Research study of married couples (February 2012), the share of interracial couples reached an all-time high of 8.4 percent. In 1980, that share was just 3.2 percent.
The narrative of homophobia in our nation is also complicated and tragic. The culture has shaped it, religious institutions have often reinforced it, and fear feeds it. I believe that no matter what the culture asserts, adults have the civil right to marry, no matter their sexual orientation.
And I believe this is also true: Wherever love is, God is.
The writer of 1 John says, “God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us.” I think it is important for congregations that teach “God is love” to also affirm the marriage of same-gender loving couples. They should have the civil right to marry and their love should be blessed in our churches.
This past Sunday, June 9 at Middle Church, my white husband and I celebrated Loving Day, the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision that gave us the right to marry and live with each other. Straight and gay couples renewed vows during our evening worship and we soaked in the original gospel music of Broadway and television actor Tituss Burgess (Jersey Boys, The Little Mermaid, Guys and Dolls and 30 Rock). Burgess invited his friends like Jamie Cepero (NBC’s Smash), Alyson Palmer (of BETTY, whose music has been heard on The L-Word, Ugly Betty and Weeds), and Broadway’s Jenny Powers (Grease and Little Women) to sing with the powerful Middle Church Community Chorus.
These amazing voices soared with a radically welcoming hymn from our gospel album, Welcome. As Tituss penned:
You’re welcome if you’re gay
You’re welcome if you’re straight
Bi, transgender, or confused; this invitation’s for you too.
Oh, oh it’s safe here,
Minds can renew here,
Come in and you’ll find out.
Middle Church stands for the freedom of all couples to legally marry. During the concert, several couples renewed their vows to each other in a commitment ceremony. We will keep celebrating loving and invite you to join us, because we know for sure that love heals.
We will keep celebrating and blogging and marching in hope that the Supreme Court will once again change the story by ruling on Prop 8 and DOMA in such a way that all couples have the right to marry.
Commenting on the similarities between interracial and same-sex marriage in 2007, Mildred Loving said:
I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry … I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That is what Loving and loving are all about.
Amen, and may it be so.