Mixed Marriage Ban: Only In Appalachia?‏

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Since the 1980s, news media have portrayed interracial romantic relationships as a persistently volatile fault line in America's racial divide. Other reports, in contrast, have suggested that the significance of race is declining, that religious practitioners are growing increasingly colorblind and that we've entered an era in which issues of racism are yesterday's news. Still, while national news media now report that attitudes toward interracial dating and marriage are becoming more liberal, the increasing likelihood of interracial romantic relationships continues to challenge the beliefs of some who are empowered at the local level to impose group sanctions in secular and religious circles alike.

In 2009, for instance, Keith Bardwell, a justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana said that he refused to marry mixed-race couples because interracial marriages are short-lived. "I'm not a racist," Bardwell remarked when questioned by the Associated Press, "I just don't believe in mixing the races that way." Bardwell expressed at least a half-truth here, as census data reveal that interracial couples do divorce at a rate slightly higher than monoracial couples. One reason for this, according to the New York Times, could be "the heightened stress in their lives as they buck enduring norms."

Just last week, Kentucky News broke a story about these "enduring norms" in a religious context. Members at the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in eastern Kentucky resolved that their church "does not condone interracial marriage." When the story was picked up by local news affiliate WKYT church member Melvin Thompson, the church's former pastor, insisted that he is "not racist" even though he proposed the ban after 24-year-old white churchgoer Stella Harville brought Ticha Chikuni, her 29-year-old black fiancé from Zimbabwe, to church in June. According to the news information and opinion site The Blaze, the couple's presence made Thompson face and then disregard the liberal ideologies he claims to hold when a fellow churchgoer became romantically involved with a partner of a different race.

The story has been largely treated as an isolated incident in the mainstream press and has not yet been covered significantly by the religious press. Until now only theGrio.com, an African-American news site, has framed the story as part of a larger historical and institutional problem, stating that "The Mormon Church has also been embroiled in lengthy discussions surrounding interracial marriages. Although there is no official policy banning mixed marriages there is evidence of opposition in LDS speeches and literature, before the 1980s." A CNN iReport was among the first to provide a detailed account of the sanction, which includes barring interracial couples from "membership, worship services, and other church functions, with the exception being funerals."

According to the Guardian, after the church voted to approve the ban, a meeting of the regional conference of Free Will Baptists churches was called to explore what actions could be taken. The Associated Press subsequently reported that the church's current pastor rendered the ban null and void according to the church's bylaws.

Although it is right to report that interracial romantic relationships are on the rise, reporters should also be aware that they remain fraught with cultural tensions – perhaps because we are socialized, often by religion and family, to adhere to social norms that govern marriage and uphold the status quo. It's equally important for journalists to remember that they are not immune to such socialization, which can make the task of exposing it particularly challenging.

As stories about religious opposition to interracial marriage continue to develop, journalists and citizen journalists would be wise to approach the topic as an institutional problem and not simply as a parochial issue disconnected from larger social trends. More pointedly, news producers should avoid using the existence of interracial romantic relationships as proof that we've entered a "post-racial" age. Finally, reporters should also be willing to turn the "journalistic gaze" inward and consider how the process of explicitly interrogating racism—religious or otherwise—can reveal the racialization of news production itself.