In their adopted home here, Chris and Angela Teague have led a happy married life in a house on five acres with a pond, virtually untroubled by strangers who might not like to see them together. But Chris is black, and Angela is white, and according to the state's highest document, their union is banned. It says so right there in the South Carolina constitution.
That stricture was struck down in 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a similar ban on interracial marriage in Virginia was unconstitutional. But as other Southern states deleted similar provisions from their constitutions long ago, South Carolina and Alabama did not. Now, in a ballot question that may call up deep-seated beliefs about the mixing of races, voters in this conservative state are being asked Tuesday whether to formally remove this portion of the state constitution, written in 1895.
Although many see this as a simple matter of a long-overdue cleanup, others see it as profoundly symbolic. There are even some fears that the effort could fail, embarrassing a state that already has received plenty of negative publicity for flying the Confederate flag at the state Capitol.
"I think it's like a shadow, a scar on South Carolina," said Chris Teague, 27, an assistant manager at an oil company who moved here from St. Louis as a newlywed three years ago. "A lot of people still think the South is a certain way, and the fact that that is still in the constitution just keeps those thought processes going."
Interracial marriages, particularly those involving blacks and whites, continue to elicit controversy, especially in the South, where slavery was widely practiced and where integration was resisted with violence in the 1950s and 1960s. Although the number of such couples in America quintupled between 1970 and 1995, according to census data, the total remains small. In 1970, there were 65,000 black-white couples in the country. These days, there are about 326,000 couples nationwide; the Census Bureau does not have a state-by-state breakdown, a spokeswoman said.
According to couples interviewed by Robert McNamara, a sociology professor at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina has proven to be one of the most difficult places to live. Under the cloak of anonymity, 28 interracial couples studied by McNamara spoke of receiving hostile stares when they went into restaurants, having their cars vandalized, and even, in a couple of cases, being forced off the road by strangers yelling racial epithets.
Many of them had been in the military and lived elsewhere in the country and the world, giving them a basis for comparison. What struck McNamara most, he said, was "their strong sense of social isolation."
People who disapprove of these families often say they are worried about the children having a confused identity -- "a noble way of being prejudiced, worrying about the poor children," said McNamara, whose book on his findings, "Crossing the Line: Interracial Couples in the South," will be published next spring.
They also invoke God. "Most of them say the Bible says it is wrong . . . and who are we to argue with God? South Carolina is very religious," McNamara said. "But most religious scholars say that's a misinterpretation of Second Corinthians, which talks about people who are unequally yoked. . . . They are using it to hide racist ideology."
When the state House of Representatives voted 99 to 4 in February to place the issue on Tuesday's ballot, many saw the decision as an exercise in political correctness. As it stands, the constitution prohibits "marriage of a white person with a Negro or mulatto or a person who shall have one-eighth or more of Negro blood."
One of the co-sponsors, State Rep. James "Bubba" Cromer of Columbia, who is white and the only independent in the House, viewed the measure primarily as an effort "to revamp antiquated provisions," citing another still on the books calling for married women to renounce their dowries before they could own property. But State Rep. Curtis Inabinett, a Democrat from Ravenel who is black, noted the historic significance.
"We should be beyond this," he said this week. "In years to come, we should at least let history reflect that we did something about it."
One of the legislators who voted against the referendum, State Rep. Dan Cooper of Anderson, a Republican, said he was worried that voters might be confused by the wording on the ballot and "by choice or by accident might vote to leave it there. And if it stays, let's face it, the state will look bad nationally."
As far as his personal feelings on the matter go, "people have the right to do what they want to," he said.
A statewide telephone poll in August conducted by Mason-Dixon Political Media Research Inc. showed that two-thirds of those surveyed were in favor of deleting the ban, according to the Associated Press.
When Angela Teague heard about the referendum on the radio, she said she turned to her husband and dryly asked, " Did you know it was illegal for us to be married?' I was shocked that it was still around, that it hadn't been automatically removed."
The Teagues, who have an 18-month-old son, Casey, and another child on the way, feel they have not experienced much prejudice here. Part of it, they agree, may be their attitude.
"People may have discreetly made faces behind our backs," said Angela, 30, an administrative assistant at a maintenance company. "Maybe it's just that we're so comfortable with it. We don't even think of ourselves as an interracial couple. We're just us. We know where we came from. The same God made us all. And if somebody else has a problem, that's their problem."
Neither had imagined marrying a person of another race. They were co-workers at a large corporation in St. Louis when they realized they had much in common, including an interest in sports and church activities. Here, they attend a Baptist church that welcomes mixed-race couples, but still is mostly white.
"I think interracial couples are more accepted now than they were even 20 years ago," Chris said. "But her dad was still apprehensive for our safety when we moved here. He said, You're moving to the South? Are you going to be okay?' "
Both hope that South Carolina voters abolish the ban.
"If it doesn't get repealed, it will be a very bad mark on the state, and it's a mark they don't need," Chris said. "South Carolina's already one of the last places in education, in high school graduations and literacy. They don't need to be the last in modern thinking, too." CAPTION: Chris and Angela Teague, with son Casey, and Tricia, 13, Angela's daughter from another marriage, live in Columbia, S.C., where voters today can change a state constitution clause that says marriages like the Teagues' are illegal. ec