Published: Friday, Oct. 1st, 2021
On October 1st, 1948, the California Supreme Court made its final ruling on Perez v. Sharp, striking down the state’s unconstitutional ban on interracial marriage. In a 4-3 majority, the Court declared that the right to marry was fundamental and must be protected by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
It was the first legal blow to the country’s anti-miscegenation laws, and paved the way for two future landmark cases in the fight for equal access to marriage: Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges.
Despite its far-reaching impact, Perez v. Sharp is largely missing from mainstream conversations about marriage rights. On the anniversary of the Court’s decision, we take a look at the couple that took a racist County Clerk to court, and a precedent that helped establish protections for interracial families everywhere. (Please see our references listed below.)
Andrea Perez, a Mexican American woman, and Sylvester Davis, an African American man, met while working at an aviation parts plant in Burbank in 1942. World War II was in full swing, and increased demand had forced the industry to finally begin hiring women and racial minorities to meet its production needs.
The couple bonded over their shared Roman Catholic faith and the relationship deepened. Davis was drafted into the Army for a year, but they kept their love alive long-distance. When he returned, they began talking about a big church wedding -- a traditional religious ceremony with a full Catholic mass to celebrate their love. All they needed was a marriage license.
That's where things got complicated, because California law didn't allow for someone who was white (Mexican Americans like Perez were considered white under the law at the time) to marry someone of another race.
In 1947, Section 69 of the California Civil Code read that “... no license may be issued authorizing the marriage of a white person with a Negro, mulatto, Mongolian or member of the Malay race.”
Still, even though the couple knew about the law, they didn't think that the ban would apply to them. As noted legal scholar R. A. Lenhardt points out, Mexican Americans were still actively discriminated against as a racial minority, no matter what any law said, and county clerks were known to classify a person’s race simply by sight or ‘gut feeling’ anyway.
So when County Clerk W. G. Sharp turned them away, a Mexican American woman and an African American man, citing Section 69, the couple was surprised.
Perez hired civil rights attorney Daniel G. Marshall to represent them in a case against the County Clerk, with the hope that the state would issue the license.
Marshall initially staked their case on religious freedom: As devoted Catholics, the couple wished to marry in a religious ceremony, and the Catholic Church approved of their marriage. The state, he claimed, could not legally keep them from participating in the sacrament.
Given the weight of the argument, the Supreme Court of California chose to hear the case immediately.
Once there, it was confirmed that denying the couple a marriage license didn’t just stand in the way of their right to the free exercise of religion (although it did). Denying them the right to marry was also a violation of their fundamental right to life, liberty, and happiness -- protected for all individuals, regardless of race, by the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Court voted 4-3 in favor of Perez and Davis after a lengthy and heated discussion, and permanently struck down the state’s ban on interracial marriage.
From the majority opinion, written by Justice Roger Traynor:
“The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects an area of personal liberty not yet wholly delimited.
"While this Court has not attempted to define with exactness the liberty thus guaranteed, the term has received much consideration and some of the included things have been definitely stated. Without doubt, it denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint, but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and, generally, to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men." (Meyer v. Nebraska, 1923) …
Marriage is thus something more than a civil contract subject to regulation by the state; it is a fundamental right of free men.
...Since the right to marry is the right to join in marriage with the person of one's choice, a statute that prohibits an individual from marrying a member of a race other than his own restricts the scope of his choice and thereby restricts his right to marry. It must therefore be determined whether the state can restrict that right on the basis of race alone without violating the equal protection of the laws clause of the United States Constitution.
"Distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.” (Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 1886)”
In only a few years, hundreds of other interracial couples in California happily wed, following in Perez and Davis’s footsteps.
The case was referenced by justices in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, which secured national protections for interracial marriage, and in In re Marriage Cases in 2008, opening the door for same-sex marriages for gay and lesbian couples in California. Both of these cases were an influence in Obergefell v. Hodges, which secured the rights of same-sex couples to marry anywhere in the country in 2015.
It was the first case of its kind, and remains one of the most important wins for the fundamental right to marry.
Equal rights might be the law in 2021, but many interracial couples still struggle to find ministers who not only respect, but celebrate their unions.
That’s why AMM’s mission is a part of this story. Our ordinations allow interracial couples, non-english speaking couples, LGBTQ+ couples, rural couples, economically challenged couples, and everyone else find an officiant that won’t judge them, and who shares their values. Our ordinations are helping non-traditional couples of all stripes have public weddings that celebrate their lives, which moves the needle on public attitudes and helps bring this country’s laws and practices in line with the ideals that defined its founding.
The details in this article were summarized from The Story of Perez V. Sharp: Forgotten Lessons on Race, Law, and Marriage, a thorough account of the history and impact of the case published in 2011 by Professor of Law Robin A. Lenhardt, for the Fordham University School of Law; and Perez v. Sharp, 32 CAL.2D 711, accessed through the Stanford Law School, Robert Crown Law Library.
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