An elected judge in eastern Louisiana was facing a growing clamour for his resignation last night after revelations that he declined to officiate at the wedding of a couple because they were of different races.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it was demanding that the authorities in Louisiana open an investigation. In a letter to the state Judiciary Commission, the group said it was recommending the "the most severe sanctions available, because such blatant bigotry poses a substantial threat of serious harm to the administration of justice".
Keith Bardwell, who is a justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish close to the border with Mississippi, is not denying that he said no to the young lovers earlier this month. He countered that he saw nothing wrong with declining to marry Beth Humphrey, 30, and Terence McKay, 32. She is white and he is black. They subsequently got married elsewhere.
"I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way," said Mr Bardwell, who has served as a justice of the peace for the county for more than 30 years. "I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else."
Ms Humphrey, an account manager for an advertising firm who has plans to study for a Masters in minority politics, said she telephoned the Bardwell home on 6 October to ask him to officiate at what she and her fiancé envisaged as an intimate wedding. They were hoping to have a bigger ceremony some time later in South Carolina.
She spoke to the judge's wife who towards the end of the conversation asked if they were both of the same race or not. After she revealed that this would be a mixed-race wedding, Mrs Bardwell said her husband would not be able to help.
"It's not something you expect in this day and age," Ms Humphrey commented. The incident is evidence that the post-racial society most Americans aspire to has still not quite arrived everywhere. It blew up the same week that Barack Obama, himself the child of a mixed-race marriage, visited Louisiana.
"Louisianians are again being shown in national media as backward-minded people," lamented the editors of Reveille, the Louisiana State University newspaper. "He should be removed from his public office because of this embarrassing, racist and likely illegal decision."
The protestations of Mr Bardwell hardly help, nor his insistence that it is the offspring of such unions that he is trying to protect. In all his career, he says, he has turned away about four couples, most of them in the last couple of years or so.
His contention is that children of mixed-race marriages are shunned both by white and black society. "There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage," he said. "I think those children suffer and I won't help put them through it." He also said white-black marriages unravel more often.
There is some data to back up the last assertion. A recent study by the National Centre for Health Statistics found that 41 per cent of mixed-race marriages broke up within 10 years while the same fate awaited 31 per cent of same-race marriages. But in turning Ms Humphrey and Mr McKay away, Mr Bardwell may have broken the law. Legal experts pointed to a US Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Virginia law impeding mixed-race marriages. Fifteen other states with similar laws were also obliged to repeal them.
"He's an elected public official and one of his duties is to marry people. He doesn't have the right to say he doesn't believe in it," said Patricia Morris, president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.Reuse content