Last Thursday, while everyone else was watching a balloon, Keith Bardwell, a Louisiana justice of the peace, was refusing to give a marriage license to an interracial couple or to officiate their wedding ceremony because he didn't “believe in mixing the races that way.”

The official's decision and subsequent justification triggered a nasty response across the internet over the weekend:

But when it comes to gay marriage, officials deny marriage licenses based on their own personal beliefs without accompanying media attention. Several state and municipal laws let officials who don't “believe in mixing the genders that way” refuse to give gay couples marriage licenses or to perform their wedding ceremonies.

Upcoming bills to allow gay marriage are particularly likely to include these provisions to help the laws pass. Without them, many state lawmakers won't vote for the laws because of people like Thomas Messner from the conservative Heritage Foundation, who warns that

those who support the tradi­tional understanding of marriage will be subject to even greater civil liability under nondiscrimination laws that prohibit private discrimination based on sexual orientation, marital status, and gender.

Take, for example, the recently introduced bill [PDF] that would legalize gay marriage in Washington, D.C. It lets officials refuse marriage licenses to gay couples based on their own religious beliefs: “No official. . .shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to the free exercise of religion.”

Public criticism of the Louisiana official may reduce these religious objections to gay marriage licenses.

Remember that Loving v. Virginia, the unanimous Supreme Court decision that ended outlaw of interracial marriage in the U.S., was a product of the Civil Rights Movement. The Court said that the civil rights of interracial couples trumped the first amendment freedoms of licensing officials. Just as denying interracial marriage licenses for religious reasons was disallowed then, gay rights organizations could argue that denying gay marriage licenses for religious reasons should be similarly disallowed now.

[Cross-posted at the Gay Couples Law Blog, which discusses same sex family law, estate planning, and taxes.]

Gideon Alper

Gideon Alper

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