For years, Mitchell Gold, a founder of the popular furniture company Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, has been irritated by what he sees as fundamentalist Christians’ use of the Bible to justify withholding civil rights from gays. Scripture, Gold argues, was used in the past to defend slavery, prohibit interracial marriage and prevent women from voting. Frustrated that few politicians dare to confront anyone brandishing a Bible, in 2005 Gold formed the group Faith In America (FIA), which says its goals are to educate people about the past “misuse” of religion and scripture. FIA's latest campaign is centered on next week’s 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that overturned Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage, which had been supported by a Virginia judge who ruled the intention of “Almighty God” was to keep the races separate. This week, FIA ran a series of full-page ads in Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, featuring a photo of former Florida governor Jeb Bush and his wife, Columba, a Mexican native, over a caption that says “they reside in Florida, where interracial marriage was illegal prior to 1967.” Gold hopes that reminding people about the Loving decision—and how social arrangements considered morally unacceptable just a few years ago are acceptable today—will help them see it’s wrong to make policy decisions based on some individuals’ interpretation of the Bible. (Photos of other public figures with interracial marriages and/or parents, like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and Sen. Mitch McConnell, also appear in the ads; some of them have objected to gay marriage in the past.) NEWSWEEK’s Julie Scelfo spoke with Gold about the campaign. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why do you think reminding people that interracial marriage used to be illegal will help end anti-gay sentiments?
Mitchell Gold: Most people acknowledge today that it was wrong 40 years ago to deny couples who loved each other the right to marry, the freedom to marry, simply because of one’s own religious belief. We want to remind people of past mistakes. This 40th anniversary of Loving is the perfect opportunity to do that. The similarity [to anti-gay rhetoric] is it’s religious-based discrimination. In 1959, when the Virginia judge handed down the decision prohibiting interracial marriage, he quoted from scripture that it was God’s will. And that is similar to today, whether it’s the president of the United States or senators and congresspeople that invoke the name of their God or religion to deny gay and lesbian couples the legal right to marry.
How has the issue of gay rights touched your life?
In 1989, Bob Williams and I founded our company with $60,000 and over 10 years it grew into a $40 million business [that provides furniture to stores like Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware]. But because we were gay and couldn’t marry, we realized if one of us should die, the other would have to pay huge inheritance tax—and may not be able to afford it. So, we decided the only way to protect ourselves was to sell the company which was really emotionally difficult. It was our baby. If we were a heterosexual couple we would not have had to think about that. We subsequently bought it back in 2004 with the help of investors, but it’s still not the same. Now, we have a lot more financial stability—and we’re also not a couple anymore—so we’re less concerned about the tax issue.
The ad campaign also includes other people who have interracial marriages like former Defense secretary Bill Cohen and Tiger Woods, or who have interracial parents like Barack Obama. Did those folks consent to letting you use the photos?
We didn’t ask. We notified them that we were using them, but because they’re all people in the public domain, those are images you can buy from stock-photography companies. I would hope they would be happy to be included and be pleased to be part of an effort to provide the freedom to marry that they have with others.
Have you heard from any of them?
No, to my surprise. They’re laying low.
What has the reaction been like so far?
Well, it’s been great actually. Everywhere I go people tell me they’re happy [my group] is talking about the history of discrimination in America. There’s so much talk today in politics about religion, and frankly too often at that intersection is discrimination. I also found it interesting that we haven’t had a flood of negative calls to say that’s a horrible argument or isn’t valid. In fact, I’ve had nobody say that.
Previously, you've said fundamentalist Christians have been waging a war against homosexuality and few people fight back. Why do you think that’s the case?
I think many politicians are afraid to say somebody using their Bible is wrong. Secular civil-rights groups are very uncomfortable. And we feel enough harm has been done, it’s time to stop this, to stand up and have the courage to say to folks, this really is not right, to think back about what types of harm this kind of religious thinking has done in the past. When he realized the harm he was causing, Jerry Falwell in the 1970s apologized to African-Americans for [previously] supporting segregation. We’re hoping that good Americans today will recognize if they’re using their biblical beliefs to deny gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people of their full and equal rights, that’s it’s wrong and harmful.
It seems like this issue is really personal for you.
[Far too many] kids commit suicide because they’re gay, because they find the world untenable for themselves. I can understand because I was almost one of those statistics. But I was fortunate to get help when I needed it. When you're growing up and you’re 14 years old—I can tell you—and your parents, your church and your government are telling you you’re wrong, you’re not equal, that’s a tough nut.