Two residents of Virginia, Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Loving, an African-American woman, married in Washington D.C., and then returned to Virginia where they were arrested, indicted, and plead guilty to violating the state's Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which invalidated and criminalized marriages between a "white" person and a "colored" person and made it a felony for mixed-race couples to marry in another jurisdiction for purposes of evading the law. A Virginia criminal court judge sentenced the Lovings to one year in prison, but suspended the sentence on the condition that they leave the state and not return there together. The Lovings filed a motion to vacate their sentence with the Virginia Caroline County Circuit Court on the grounds that Virginia's law violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The trial court denied their motion. A year later, the Virginia Caroline County Circuit Court denied the Lovings’ motion. In reaching its decision, the circuit court averred:
[a]lmighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix. The Lovings appealed to Virginia's Supreme Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia in Loving v. Commonwealth (206 Va. 924, 147 S. E. 2d 78 (1966)) affirmed the circuit court's decision, holding that the state's antimiscegenation law served the legitimate state purpose of preserving the “racial integrity” of its citizenry and, because it punished both participants in an interracial marriage equally, it did not violate the equal protection clause. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals’ contention was consistent with Virginia’s history of racism. As early as 1630, a white colonist was publicly whipped for “defiling his body in laying with a Negro.” According to Brent Staples in “What if the Court in the Loving Case Had Declared Race a False Idea?”: Colonial-era court records are filled with crimes related to interracial sex and fierce debates about the legal status of children born of interracial unions. The race mixing reached a peak in the mid-19th century, when it became inescapably clear that plantation owners were holding their own children, siblings and cousins in chains. The Lovings appealed the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the decision by the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia. The Court’s decision invalidated laws in sixteen states: Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Delaware, and Virginia. The Court’s decision rendered anti-miscegenation laws in these sixteen states unenforceable; however, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s prohibition against anti-miscegenation laws, several states did not repeal their anti-miscegenation laws and, indeed, continued enforce them for years after the Loving decision. In 2000, 33 years after the Court’s decision, Alabama became the final state to alter its constitution to formally outlaw anti-miscegenation laws.
The 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia overturned anti-miscegenation laws in sixteen yellow states on the map above.
In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Warren rejected Virginia's contention that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment requires only equal application of punishment and a rational state purpose. Warren asserts that the purpose of the 14th Amendment is to eliminate invidious racial discrimination by states. Accordingly, any state statute that makes classifications based upon race, especially a criminal statute, requires rigid scrutiny. Noting that Virginia's law applies only to marriages between "white" persons and persons of "color" and not to non-whites of different races, he concludes that the law's purpose is to promote "White Supremacy," which the Supreme Court previously ruled constituted invidious racial discrimination with no legitimate state purpose. The Warren Court also found that the freedom to marry, although unenumerated in the Constitution, is a fundamental human right that includes the liberty to marry a person of a different race. Virginia's anti-miscegenation law constituted a denial of such liberty without due process of law, not merely a proper exercise of state authority to regulate marriages. In Chief Justice Warren’s own words: Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man" fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law…Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State. In a concurring opinion, J. Stewart opined that any criminal statute which makes the race of the perpetrator the basis for an offense is unconstitutional. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, June 12th, the date on which the Supreme Court released its decision in Loving v. Virginia, is now known as “Loving Day” – a tribute to the Lovings and interracial marriage.
Mildred and Richard Loving on the porch of their home.
Important Case that Cites Loving v. Virginia
United States v. Windsor (570 U.S. , 133 S. Ct. 2675, 186 L. Ed. 2d 808 (2013))
In United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. DOMA, a federal law, defined marriage as a union between “one man and one woman.” The Supreme Court cited Loving v. Virginia for the proposition that “regulation of domestic relations” is “an area that has long been regarded as a virtually exclusive province of the States.”
Obergefell v. Hodges (576 U.S. , 135 S. Ct. 2584, 192 L. Ed. 2d 609 (2015))
The Supreme Court relied on the reasoning in Loving v. Virginia when it ruled on the constitutionality of state laws banning same-sex marriage. By a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court decided that state bans on same-sex marriage violated the 14th amendment. In his opinion for the majority of the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited Loving for the proposition that marriage is a constitutionally-protected right: “the Court has long held the right to marry is protected by the Constitution. In Loving v. Virginia, 388 U. S. 1, 12 (1967), which invalidated bans on interracial unions, a unanimous Court held marriage is “one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.’” In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Roberts distinguished Loving v. Virginia, maintaining that the “Court’s precedents have repeatedly described marriage in ways that are consistent only with its traditional meaning… an understanding that implies a procreative component” and, therefore, must be between a man and a woman.