Marriage Rights

Marriage Rights

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Marriage occupies an oddly central place in the history of American civil liberties. Although conventional wisdom would suggest that marriage is barely a government issue at all, the financial benefits associated with the institution have given meddlesome legislators the opportunity to insert themselves into relationships they condone and express their personal disapproval of relationships they don't. As a result, every American marriage includes the enthusiastic third-party participation of legislators who have, in a sense, married into their relationship and declared it superior to the relationships of others.


Jasmin Awad / EyeEm

Before same-sex marriage became the hot-button marriage controversy, laws banning interracial marriage dominated the national conversation, especially in the American South. One 1664 British colonial law in Maryland declared interracial marriages between white women and black men to be a "disgrace," and established that any white women who participate in these unions shall be declared slaves themselves, along with their children.


Although the 1664 law was brutal in its own way, legislators realized that it was not an especially effective threat - forcibly enslaving white women would be difficult, and the law included no penalties for white men who married black women. Virginia's 1691 law corrected both of these issues by mandating exile (effectively a death penalty) rather than enslavement, and by imposing this penalty on all those who intermarry, regardless of gender.


The State of Mississippi has never been noted as an especially strong proponent of women's rights, but it was the first state in the country to grant women the right to own property independent of their husbands. 18 years later, New York followed suit with the more comprehensive Married Women's Property Act.


The U.S. government was hostile to Mormons for most of the 19th century, owing mostly to the tradition's past endorsement of polygamy. In Reynolds v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which was passed specifically to prohibit Mormon polygamy; a new Mormon declaration in 1890 outlawed bigamy, and the federal government has been largely Mormon-friendly ever since.


In Pace v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Alabama's ban on interracial marriages - and, with it, similar bans in nearly all of the former Confederacy. The ruling would stand for 84 years.


Divorce has been a recurring issue in the history of U.S. civil liberties, starting with 17th-century laws that banned divorce altogether except in documented cases of adultery. Oklahoma's 1953 law allowing no-fault divorces finally allowed couples to make the mutual decision to divorce without declaring a guilty party; most other states gradually followed suit, beginning with New York in 1970.


The single most important marriage case in U.S. Supreme Court history was Loving v. Virginia (1967), which finally ended Virginia's 276-year ban on interracial marriage and explicitly declared, for the first time in U.S. history, that marriage is a civil right.


The first U.S. government body to grant any kind of legal partnership rights to same-sex couples was the City of Berkeley, which passed the nation's first domestic partnership ordinance almost three decades ago.


The Supreme Court of Hawaii's series of rulings in asked a question that, until 1993, no government body had really asked: if marriage is a civil right, how can we legally justify withholding it to same-sex couples? In 1993 the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled, in effect, that the state needed a really good reason, and challenged legislators to go find one. A later Hawaii civil unions policy resolved the ruling in 1999, but the six years of Baehr v. Miike made same-sex marriage a viable national issue.


The federal government's response to Baehr v. Miike was the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which established that states would not be obligated to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and that the federal government would not recognize them at all. DOMA was declared unconstitutional by the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in May 2012, and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling will likely follow in 2013.


Vermont became the first state to voluntarily offer benefits to same-sex couples with its civil unions law in 2000, which made Governor Howard Dean a national figure and nearly gave him the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.


Massachusetts became the first state to legally recognize full same-sex marriage in 2004; since then, five other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit.


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