Bias in Black and White: California's Religion-Based Ban on Same-Sex Marriage Parallels Historic Battle over Interracial Unions, Say Legal Experts

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Bias in Black and White: California's Religion-Based Ban on Same-Sex Marriage Parallels Historic Battle over Interracial Unions, Say Legal Experts


Boston, Rob, Church & State


Thirty years ago, Roger Mills had to fight in seven courts to win the right to marry the woman he loved.

Mills, who is white, wanted to marry a black woman. In most parts of the country, this would not have been a big deal in 1970. But in Mississippi, a state still resisting integration and clinging to a Jim Crow past that condemned "race mixing" as un-Christian, it absolutely was.

Still, Mills didn't expect to have any problems when he walked into the local courthouse to apply for a license. Three years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had unanimously struck down a Virginia law banning interracial marriage. Mississippi's statute was essentially the same as Virginia's and was surely a dead letter.

It wasn't that simple. A local racist group got wind of the couple's plans and successfully petitioned a state judge to issue an order forbidding the county clerk from granting the license.

Mills, who was 24 at the time, began to get worried.

"We had sent out all of these invitations and were not anticipating this," Mills said. "This was going to mess up everything. We didn't know what we were going to do."

The couple turned to the courts -first state, then federal. After a whirlwind of activity spanning two weeks, a federal appeals court lifted the order on the clerk, and Mills' union with Berta Linson became Mississippi's first legally sanctioned interracial marriage.

Three decades have passed, and for Mills, history is repeating itself in an unexpected way. His daughter, Demetria, who lives in Georgia, is also fighting resistance to her plans for a lawful union - because she wants to marry another woman.

Demetria's hopes for a legal marriage have angered a lot of religious conservatives. To her father, it's a familiar situation.

As Mills fought for the right to marry, he stirred up a hornet's nest. During one court proceeding, the Mississippi attorney general badgered Mills before a packed gallery of news reporters because he lived in the same apartment building (though not in the same unit) as his fiancee. Mills was accused of violating the state's anti-miscegenation law.

"It was terrible," Mills recalled. "I was put on the stand. It was humiliating in front of all of those reporters to have the attorney general examining me on this stuff."

Hate mail poured in.

"You think what you have done is real smart," wrote one anonymous critic. "I'm sure you did it to prove a point to the Christian White people of Mississippi, but in the end you will be the one to sorrow. ... This is against the law of God and you will have to answer to Him for disobeying this very stern commandment in His word."

Mills, an Americans United member - and Sunday school teacher -who now lives in Georgia, told Church & State that fundamentalist religion was a big factor in the issue.

"We got lectures on Leviticus and the Old Testament, about how it was impermissible to have your seeds be mixed," he recalls. "We got the curse of Cain and how blacks were marked in the Old Testament and what I was doing was a shame to my race. We got all of that."

Thirty years later, daughter Demetria can relate. Her parents divorced afer 18 years of marriage, but she sees personal parallels to the fundamentialist opposition that occured when they were first wed. The Georgia resident has heard any number of pastors cite their interpretation of the Bible when blasting same-sex unions.

"I thought all of these things would be righted eventually, yet I encounter the same opposition, and it's all based on religious beliefs that are linked to the power of government," she said.

Ironically, developments in another state may determine the fate of Demetria's union with her partner. A battle over same-sex marriage in California is working its way up the federal court system, and some legal observers believe it may even reach the U. …

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