Today in 1967: Loving v. Virginia is decided

June 12, 2015

Today in Legal HistoryBy the end of this month, the Supreme Court will rule on Obergefell v. Hodges, which could resolve the question of the legal status of same-sex marriage on a national level.  If the Court ends up ruling in favor of same-sex marriage rights, as many observers predict, then the case will likely be remembered as a landmark decision marking a major civil rights milestone in U.S. history.  Many observers who predict the Court making such a ruling often compare Obergefell to another Supreme Court case that struck down a similar marriage restriction: Loving v. Virginia.

The landmark Loving case, which is celebrating its 48th anniversary today, struck down Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law that prohibited marriage between individuals classified as “white” and those classified as “colored.”  By finding the law unconstitutional as violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, Loving had the added effect of invalidating the anti-miscegenation laws of every other state across the country – which, including Virginia, totaled 16, some of which had been in place longer than the U.S. was a sovereign nation.

The facts of the case begin in June of 1958, when two Virginia residents, Mildred Jeter, a woman of African American and Native American descent, and Richard Loving, a white man, were married in the District of Columbia.  They returned home to Virginia, and in the early morning hours of July 11, 1958, based on an anonymous tip, the police raided their home and found the couple asleep in bed together.

Using the marriage certificate that was hanging in the couple’s bedroom as evidence, the Lovings were charged with violating Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages.  They pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to serve one year in jail, a sentence that was suspended for a period of 25 years on the condition that the couple leave the state of Virginia and not return together during those two and a half decades.

The trial judge cited religious beliefs as the foundation for Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, writing:

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 complied and moved to Washington, D.C.  However, after several years, the Lovings grew tired of their forced exile.  Inspired by the civil rights movement, Mrs. Loving wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for help.  He replied, referring her to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  The ACLU took up the Lovings’ case, and its lawyers asked the trial judge to set aside his original verdict.  He refused, of course, and the Lovings appealed.  After losing at the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

As stated earlier, the Court sided with the Lovings, finding that any race-based restrictions on marriage ran afoul of the Equal Protection Clause.  The Court noted that the Virginia high court found the state of Virginia had legitimate purposes for the laws, including preventing “a mongrel breed of citizens.”  The Virginia court also “reasoned that marriage has traditionally been subject to state regulation without federal intervention, and, consequently, the regulation of marriage should be left to exclusive state control by the Tenth Amendment.”

The Supreme Court countered, however, by saying that the states’ regulation of marriage is not limitless, and indeed must comport with the U.S. Constitution.  Finding that there is “no question” that “Virginia’s miscegenation statutes rest solely upon distinctions drawn according to race,” the Court held there was “no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.”

For anyone who has been following the legal debate on same-sex marriage, the similarities with those legal arguments used in Loving are striking.  With Loving, there appeared to be a vigorous religious argument for opposing interracial marriage, the states defended their laws by claiming to be protecting “responsible procreation” (worded less euphemistically), and interracial marriage opponents argued that the Supreme Court had no place to interfere with what was solely an issue left for state police powers.

And if these parallels between the two marriage legal battles weren’t remarkable enough, there are a comparable number of states currently remaining with same-sex marriage bans as there were states with interracial marriage bans when Loving was decided.  Interestingly, there are only 13 states yet remaining that do not allow same-sex marriage, whereas there were 16 banning interracial marriage 48 years ago.

Regardless of the profound similarities between Loving and Obergefell, however, there will not be any lasting comparisons remembered by history if the Court doesn’t rule similarly in Obergefell as it did in Loving.  Luckily, we won’t have to wait much longer to find out how the case will turn out.