CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS LIBRARY
Winning the Right to Marry: Historic Parallels
In this lesson, students explore marriage bans for same-sex couples within the context of earlier prohibitions, and use these historical parallels to determine the fairness of current restrictions. Students listen to the story of an individual who was personally affected by marriage restrictions and fought to change the law in his state. They then analyze existing state and federal laws concerning same-sex marriage, and consider whether or not these laws are in need of change.
- Students will explore past injustices within the institution of marriage.
- Students will identify marriage attributes that can be used in considering past and present challenges to marriage law.
- Students will reflect on the personal testimony of an individual involved in the movement for marriage rights.
- Students will increase their knowledge about existing state and federal marriage laws.
- Students will consider the fairness or unfairness of current marriage laws and begin to develop a personal stance on the issue.
ABOUT THIS LESSON
Time: 75-90 mins. or 2 class periods
Grade Level: Grades 8 & up
Strategies and Skills: analyzing primary documents, analyzing oral histories, brainstorming, connecting past to present, cooperative group work, critical thinking, debate, forming opinions, historical understanding, large and small group discussion, reading skills, writing skills
Key Words and Phrases: attribute, civil marriage, civil union, constitutional/ unconstitutional, discrimination, DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), domestic partnership, interracial, invalidate, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), mandate, plaintiff, refuge, sexual orientation, void
Handouts/Supporting Documents: download all handouts (.pdf format)
- (Optional) To Be Equal: The Journey of David Wilson (one per student)
- Winning the Freedom to Marry: Progress in the States (one per small group)
- The Defense of Marriage Act (one per small group)
Other Materials: Unheard Voices interviews and background materials, chart paper, markers, masking tape, computer, speakers,
- Reproduce handouts as directed above.
- Prepare the statements in steps # 1 and 2.
- Prepare to play interview (see step # 6).
- Print out copies of your state’s marriage law (see step # 9).
NOTE: The lessons in this unit explore lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues in an open and direct way. Given the absence of this topic in the curriculum and the disproportionate rates of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment, it is important to educate students about these issues. When discussing any new or sensitive topic, however, there is the potential for some students to react in stereotypical or disrespectful ways. It is therefore imperative that educators carefully review each lesson, assess students’ maturity and readiness to engage in the lesson prior to implementation, and establish clear parameters with students that will ensure safe and constructive dialogue. See Establishing a Safe Learning Environment and Talking About Diversity with Students for guidelines on building safe forums for discussing sensitive issues. With regard to this particular lesson, see also Discussing Marriage of Same-Sex Couples with Students.
Part I: Defining the Attributes of Marriage (30 minutes)
- Post the following statements:
- “All [such] marriages shall be absolutely void without any decree of divorce or other legal process.”
- Such marriages are “unnatural.”
- “Almighty God…did not intend for [such people] to mix.”
Inform the students that the statements come from various rulings by judges on cases involving marriage. Ask them to venture some guesses as to which group of people the statements refer.
- After some speculation, inform students that the statements reflect decisions about interracial marriage that were prevalent until relatively recent times. Share the full text of the above quotes with students:
- “All marriages between a white person and a colored person shall be absolutely void without any decree of divorce or other legal process.” (Va. Code Ann. 20-57, 1960)
- Racial intermarriage is “unnatural,” and would lead to children who are “generally sickly, and effeminate…and inferior in physical development and strength.” (Scott v. Georgia, 39 Ga. 321, 323, 1869)
- Almighty 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.” (Loving, 388 U.S. at 3, 1958)
- Allow some time for students to react to these statements. Point out that at one time 40 states forbade the marriage of a white person to a person of color and it was not until 1948 that California became the first state to declare unconstitutional a ban on interracial marriage. Add that in the landmark 1967 case, Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck down the remaining interracial marriage laws across the country and declared that the freedom to marry is a “basic civil right.”
- Ask students if they think that racial sameness is a necessary or important attribute of a good marriage (most will likely reject this notion). Tell students that you would like them to come up with more appropriate attributes of marriage. Form small groups of 3-5 students, ask each to select a recorder and provide each with a sheet of chart paper and a marker. Instruct each group to brainstorm a list of marriage attributes – not legal standards, but qualities they think form the basis for a sound marriage (e.g., emotional compatibility, demonstration of love, commitment over time, economic interdependence, etc.). Allow 10 minutes for groups to work.
- Reconvene the class and have groups post their lists. Together create a master class list that reflects the major attributes from all groups. If there is disagreement amongst students, try to reach some consensus and then display the class criteria.
Part II: Exploring Marriage of Same-Sex Couples (45-60 minutes)
- Inform students that in recent years another group of Americans has turned to the courts in order to secure the freedom to marry – same-sex couples. Tell them that you are going to play an interview of someone who has been involved in that struggle. Provide the following introduction:
David Wilson and his partner, Rob Compton, were two of the plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the landmark case that awarded marriage equality to same-sex couples in Massachusetts. Ten years before the lawsuit, David Wilson was living with his first partner, Ronald Loso, outside of Boston, until November 29, 1994. Here, Wilson remembers that day.
- After playing the interview, provide additional context by sharing information from the handout, To Be Equal: The Journey of David Wilson, or providing a copy to students and reading it together as a class. Process David’s story using the discussion questions (found in the background materials) that accompany the interview.
- Point out that while David won the right to marry in Massachusetts, millions of gay Americans today are denied the right to marry in the states where they reside. Ask students if they know what the status of same-sex marriage is in their state and if they are aware of the federal government’s policy on this issue.
- Tell students that, in small groups, they will have the opportunity to discuss the current status of same-sex marriage and their opinions about existing laws. Divide the class into groups of 3-5 students and have each group select a recorder and a reporter. Provide each group with a sheet of chart paper, a marker and one copy of the following materials:
- Instruct groups to collaboratively review the handouts and to also consider David Wilson’s story and the class list of marriage attributes brainstormed earlier. Based on this information, have groups discuss their opinions on the Defense of Marriage Act and their state’s law. Have groups record any changes that they would make to existing laws based on their conversation. Allow 20-30 minutes for groups to work.
- Reconvene the class and have each group post its chart at the front of the room. Ask each reporter to share one or two highlights from their group’s conversation. Engage students in a discussion using some of the following questions:
- Do same-sex couples have the capacity to reflect the attributes on the class list?
- Is there a justification for the definition of marriage as the union between one man and one woman?
- Should government have the right to determine who can and cannot marry based on gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or any other factor?
- Is it right for a state to invalidate marriages performed legally in other states?
NOTE: Some students may suggest that there are religious justifications for opposing same-sex marriage. Without passing judgment on any student’s religious beliefs, make sure to clarify the difference between civil and religious marriage for the purposes of this discussion. Share, for example, the following explanation from the New Hampshire Freedom to Marry Education Fund (www.nhfreedomtomarry.org/comparison.html): “There are two types of marriage – civil marriage and religious marriage. Couples may have one or both types of marriage: a civil marriage if they meet the government’s requirements; and a religious marriage if they meet the requirements of their faith tradition. However, to receive the legal protections of marriage, a couple must have a civil marriage. The debate over the freedom to marry is about the right to enter into a state-created institution of civil marriage only. Even after civil marriage becomes available to gay and lesbian couples, no court decision or legislative enactment can change the basic tenets of a religious faith.”
- Optional: For homework or as an in-class follow-up assignment, have students write an essay in which they discuss the quote below and why they agree or disagree with the author’s point of view.
Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the ‘wrong kind of person’ for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.
— Mildred Loving, plaintiff in Loving v. Virginia (1967), the U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down interracial marriage bans