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Gay marriage fight recalls ‘60s mixed-race debate

10th Circuit Court heard Utah’s same-sex marriage case on the anniversary of landmark 1967 hearing on mixed-race marriages.

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"The only disagreement was how many people could marry, but the foundational basis of [the discussion] was that marriage was sacred, ordained by God, the union of a man and a woman and lies at the very heart of the Christian religion and … Christian society and a Christian republic," he said.

Utah ended its ban on interracial marriages four years before the Loving decision — but not without dissent.

At a glance

A religious basis

An amicus brief submitted by religious groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that support Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage, echoes comments made in the past about anti-miscegenation laws: “Marriage between a man and a woman is sanctioned by God as the right and best setting for bearing and raising children” and “traditional marriage is indispensable to social welfare and our republican form of government.”

The LDS Church reaffirmed its opposition to gay marriage at its General Conference about a week ago. Apostle Neil L. Andersen said changes in civil law cannot change the “moral law” of God.

“While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage,” he said, “the Lord has not.”

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In 1963, as Utah lawmakers prepared to consider repealing the state’s anti-miscegenation laws, a two-page pamphlet prepared by the "United White Citizens of Utah" appeared on their desks urging them to vote "no" on the bill.

Rep. J. McKinnon Smith, R-Salt Lake City, stood on the floor of the House during debate on the repeal bill and urged his colleagues to uphold the anti-miscegenation ban since "we really have no problem in Utah."

Don’t "sell your birthright," Smith said according to a Salt Lake Tribune report. "Your grandchildren are entitled to the blessings that you enjoy."

Despite those pleas, the civil rights bill passed 52 to 6.

Fast-forward 41 years to 2004, when the Utah Legislature voted to place Amendment 3, the constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, on that fall’s general election ballot.

Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, who sponsored the bill, said during floor debate that what was at stake was an "internal struggle between right and wrong" and urged his colleagues to not lower "standards or transforming fundamental principles upon which our society is based."

He said those principles stemmed from "self-evident truths" based on the "God of nature, nature’s laws," the Bible and "the morality of a people as reflected in its laws."

In Mason’s view, the conversation surrounding today’s same-sex marriage debate makes many assumptions raised in the past about interracial marriage, but he argues you can’t "just lift race discourse and scratch out ‘black’ and put in ‘gay’ " given the difference in discrimination and sanctions applied to the two groups.

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Disagreement over how and whether Loving works as a framework for same-sex marriage plays out in dueling friend-of-the-court briefs filed in the Utah case at the 10th Circuit Court.

A coalition of African-American groups supporting the state’s position says the two movements are nothing alike.

The coalition includes the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, The Coalition of African American Pastors USA and The Frederick Douglass Foundation Inc.

The Lovings’ marriage conformed to the nature and meaning of traditional marriage, they said, while "racial eugenicists" in Virginia used the "extraneous factor of race" to "commandeer marriage in order to promote the social reform ideology and policy goals of White Supremacy."

The brief, which draws from articles by Brigham Young University law professor Lynn Wardle, said the marital status of the Lovings was never at issue as they fought the charges brought against them. And the Loving decision "left intact the gender-inclusive definition of marriage," aimed at fostering "responsible sexuality, procreation and child rearing."

"In no small part, the Lovings challenged the Virginia anti-miscegenation law for the sake of their [three] children," the coalition said. In "stark contract" to Loving, "it is not at all yet clear whether the social impact of legalizing same-sex marriage will or will not diminish the well-being of children generally," the coalition argues.

On the other side: The Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic, which filed an amicus brief backing the three same-sex couples challenging Utah’s ban. The clinic said gay marriage opponents have "carbon copied" the same "flawed arguments that once were used to justify racial slavery and apartheid."

Then, as now, claims were made that expanding marital rights would upset the social order and lead to social chaos, the clinic said. Interracial relationships were described as unnatural and "contrary to God’s will." Such relationships were bluntly sexualized through use of coded language about sexual taboos — which the clinic said is repeated today in references to "adult-centric" lifestyles.

"Without acknowledging the racial provenance of these discredited arguments, opponents of marriage equality have attacked same-sex couples as a threat to American society, American families, heterosexual marriage, and children," it said. "None of these statements is remotely true."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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