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Is opposition to same-sex marriage at all like opposition to interracial marriage? One refrain in debates over marriage policy is that laws designating marriage as exclusively the union of male and female are today’s equivalent of bans on interracial marriage. Some further argue that protecting the freedom to speak and act publicly on the basis of a religious belief that marriage is the union of a man and woman amounts to the kind of laws that enforced race-based segregation.

These claims are wrong on several counts, as I explain in a new Heritage Foundation Report released last week: “Marriage, Reason, and Religious Liberty: Much Ado About Sex, Nothing to Do with Race.”

Whatever one believes about marriage and however government defines it, there is no compelling state interest in forcing every citizen to treat a same-sex relationship as a marriage when this would violate their religious or other conscientious beliefs. It is reasonable for citizens to believe that marriage is the union of a man and woman. When citizens lead their lives and run their businesses in accord with this belief, they deny no one equality before the law. As a result, such beliefs and actions deserve protection against government coercion.

Great thinkers throughout human history—and from every political community up until the year 2000—thought it reasonable to view marriage as the union of male and female, husband and wife, mother and father. Indeed, support for marriage as the union of man and woman has been a near human universal. The argument over redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships is one over the nature of marriage. Same-sex marriage is the result of revisionism in historical reasoning about marriage.

Bans on interracial marriage and Jim Crow laws, by contrast, were aspects of a much larger insidious movement that denied the fundamental equality and dignity of all human beings and forcibly segregated citizens. When these interracial marriage bans first arose in the American colonies, they were inconsistent not only with the common law inherited from England, but also with the customs of prior world history, which had not banned interracial marriage. These bans were based not on reason, but on prejudiced ideas about race that emerged in the modern period and that refused to regard all human beings as equal. This led to revisionist, unreasonable conclusions about marriage policy. Thinking that marriage has anything at all to do with race is unreasonable, and as a historical matter, few great thinkers ever suggested that it did.

Protecting religious liberty and the rights of conscience does not infringe on anyone’s sexual freedoms. Those who believe that marriage is a male–female relationship and want to lead their lives accordingly deny no one equal protection of the law. While Americans are free to live as they choose, no one should demand that government coerce others into celebrating their relationships. All Americans should remain free to believe and act in the public square based on their belief that marriage is the union of a man and woman without fear of government penalty.

Read more about this in the new Heritage Foundation Report: Marriage, Reason, and Religious Liberty: Much Ado About Sex, Nothing to Do with Race.”

More on: Public Life, Marriage

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