By Naoma Nagahawatte, NCRCR Director
More than 40 years after the passage of milestone civil rights legislation in the US, an ugly vestige of the Jim Crow era emerged last week in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana. Keith Bardwell - a parish justice of the peace - refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple. After the initial shock segued into a dim awareness that we may not actually live in a ‘post-racial’ America, I realized that it might be appropriate to delve a bit deeper into the issue for some clarification:
Clarification # 1) It is illegal to deny people the right to marry based on race, isn’t it?
In 1967, the Supreme Court decided the landmark case Loving v. Virginia, striking down Virginia's anti-miscegenation statute, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The Loving decision overturned an earlier Supreme Court ruling that had upheld anti-miscegenation laws, finally ending all legal sanctions for race-based restrictions on marriage in the United States.
Clarification # 2) If race-based restrictions on marriage are illegal, how could Keith Bardwell deny an interracial couple a license to marry?
According to an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana, ''He knew he was breaking the law, but continued to do it.'' Bardwell, who has worked as a justice of the peace for 34 years, refused applications to four interracial couples in the past two-and-a-half years.
Clarification # 3) Keith Bardwell told the Associated Press, “I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way.”
By denying two people of different races the right to marry because of race, Bardwell has discriminated against them on the basis of race. Discrimination on the basis of race is a dictionary definition of racism… you do the math.
Clarification# 4) Bardwell also said he didn’t perform interracial marriages because, “In my heart, I feel the children will later suffer.”
Guess what? Anticipated prejudice is NOT a sufficient basis upon which to deny a marriage license.
Still, there is reason to take heart. Steps against Mr. Bardwell have been taken. The ACLU of Louisiana sent a letter to the Louisiana Judiciary Committee, which oversees the state justices of the peace, asking it to investigate Bardwell and recommending ''the most severe sanctions available, because such blatant bigotry poses a substantial threat of serious harm to the administration of justice.'' In addition, the recently-denied couple is seeking to file a case against Bardwell with the U.S. Department of Justice. Our structure of checks and balances remains intact, allowing those like Bardwell, who slip through the system’s cracks, to be brought to justice.
In 1984, a case called Palmore v. Sidoti came before the Supreme Court. In Palmore, a Florida lower court ordered the removal of custody from a birth mother, as a result of her relationship and marriage to a member of another race. The lower court held that removal of custody was in the children’s best interest, given the hostility that the court expected the community might have towards interracial families. The Supreme Court held that the effects of racial prejudice could not justify removing a child from the custody of a birth mother otherwise found to be an appropriate and fit parent, and that this classification on the basis of race is a violation of the Constitution. The Palmore theory can extend to marriage licenses. Denying a marriage license to an interracial couple on the contention that the effects of racial prejudice will cause their child to suffer is insufficient, violating the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Put another way, the “for the kids” argument holds no water.