Just a century ago, a majority of the states which comprise this country had laws in place which prohibited white persons from marrying blacks, “mulattos,” Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Mongolians, or Filipinos without a state-granted license—a government permission slip.

Laws in many of the states had long been in place to outright prohibit such mixing of the races. Maryland was the first, enacting prohibitions in 1664. In Virginia, interracial marriage was banned in 1691. As time progressed, such marriages were allowed so long as a license was given, but licenses were not always easy to get. For example, Dr. Walter Plecker of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics strongly enforced that state’s laws, which by the early 1900s had been modified to allow white people to marry a person of another race (provided that the non-caucasian genetic makeup comprised less than 1/16 of the individual’s genome) by demanding that his subordinates refuse to offer licenses to any mixed marriage.

North Carolina’s law in 1715 sought to “prevent illegal and unlawful marriages” and required that the betrothed couple seek a government license to sanction their union. A followup law in 1749 similarly sought to “prevent clandestine and unlawful Marriages” and also prohibited interracial marriages.

Because of a desire by the state to control procreation and keep the white race pure, licenses were increasingly required throughout the 19th century, and by the early 20th century every state in the Union had adopted license requirements to allow a couple to marry, even if both parties were white.

What had historically been a sacred institution regulated by families and churches became, over time, a function of the state. It cannot be understated that licensure is inherently exclusionary; licenses exist so that they can be denied to some people.
The state gives drivers licenses to some citizens so it can prohibit others from driving on its roads. The state gives licenses to certain food establishments so it can deny others from offering their culinary services. It requires licenses for marriage so that it can deny marriage to certain individuals.

The early decades of marriage licensure entailed such denials to couples of mixed race. Although, this isn’t entirely relegated to history; one interracial couple in Louisiana was denied permission to marry just two years ago. “I’m not a racist. I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way,” the license-denying judge said.

Through the licensure power, bigamy laws were later enacted to prohibit multiple marriages (polygamy) among consenting adults. And recently, licenses have been used by the government in many jurisdictions to deny same-sex couples from seeking state sanction for their union.

Any advocate of liberty must pause to consider the implications of empowering the state to regulate a private institution. Marriage is, properly, a sacred joining of two individuals into a committed companionship. It is an enterprise between two families (or multiple families in the case of polygamy). If the couple is religious, then their union is likely a sacred sacrament performed by an ecclesiastical leader. The state has absolutely no justification for any interference whatsoever.

Jesus Christ once told his disciples, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Does marriage belong to God, or the government? Must a committed, consenting couple bow down before the state to seek its blessing, or should they instead only kneel upon God’s altar for his?

On another occasion, Christ taught, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” In other words, what God brings together, the people should not seek to separate. A couple who seeks to marry, or who in fact does marry, should not be separated—legislatively, judicially, or physically—by the Caesar which rules over them.

Unfortunately, the masses mostly accept or actively support Caesar’s domination of an institution that falls under God’s sole jurisdiction. Latter-day Saints whose ancestors defied the federal government’s attack on plural marriages now support the state’s prohibition and persecution of other unions with which they disagree.

A fundamental rule when dealing with government is that you should never empower a friend to do something you wouldn’t want a foe to also do. Supporting the state’s involvement in an action with which we agree can quickly turn on us when we become the targeted minority, with the same power we once cheered being used to punish us. In most cases, the solution is to not delegate the power in the first place (or tolerate its arrogation). So, too, with marriage.

The sacred union between consenting adults must be extricated from the sticky tentacles of the state and returned to churches and families to whom it properly belongs. It is not our business to dictate to our neighbors with whom they may live and under what terms they may consider their relationship a marriage. We therefore cannot legitimately delegate such a non-existent authority to the state. We are our brother’s keeper, but we are not his legal guardian.


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