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The South And Marriage Equality, Part II: Are States’ Rights A Wrong?

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April 4, 2013

While racial, reproductive, and economic equality are the apples and oranges of modern social justice and should not be compared too intensely, one thing remains certain: They have all taken–and continue to take–a long time to make their way to the American South. The projected trajectory of marriage equality will likely follow that of abolition, integration, and abortion accessibility.

Much of the opposition within the South appears to be tied up in states’ rights, or the pervasive ideology that a state’s government–not that of the United States–should wield the most control over the legislation which affects its citizens. When asked his thoughts on marriage equality last December, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham responded, “The question for us is who should decide these things? Should it be a handful of judges or should it be the people themselves? And I come out on the side of the people themselves. But slavery was outlawed by a Constitutional amendment. If you want to propose a Constitutional amendment legalizing same-sex marriage and it passes, that’s the law of the land.”

Graham did not merely falsely equivilize consensual marriage with enslavement. He also echoed the origins of the states’ rights belief system. At the onset of the American Civil War, the economies of states below the Mason-Dixon Line were dependent upon agriculture and slave labor. When these states seceded from the Union, it was to financially save themselves and–by default–slavery. After a brutal defeat in the Civil War, these sentiments of state superiority only lingered.

Today, it may be tempting to assume that only conservative Southerners subscribe to the belief that state governments should possess more control than the federal government. However, in a recent article in The George-Anne, a college newspaper based in the Southeast, Alex LaSalle provides evidence to the contrary. In his op-ed, LaSalle ponders whether or not the Supreme Court’s  ruling on Proposition 8 will infringe upon California’s state legislative process. “It’s important to note that 52 percent of California voters supported Prop 8 in 2008,” he writes. “Like it or not, that’s democracy in action. The people of 31 states have amended their laws to ensure that hetero marriage is the only marriage. If the Supreme Court goes and reverses that, many will see that as un-democratic at best.” Later in the article, LaSalle admits that–in spite of this apparent intrusion on state affairs–he, “hope[s] the Supreme Court will overturn Prop 8.”

As evidenced by slavery, the state, when left to its own devices, is not a utopia impervious to genocide or flat-out bad decisions. When Proposition 8 passed in California, state zoning ordinances, the language of the measure, and local churches influenced the outcome. Furthermore, recent polls confirm that, if voted on today, the measure which initially banned same-sex unions in California would not pass muster. Given that Proposition 8 is now before the Supreme Court five years later is testament to the issues with state-based legislation.

While proposing state supremacy is not an immediate indicator of bigotry, the argument is all too frequently used by legislators in order to ignore social justice issues which appear “messy” due to personal bias, fear of losing constituents, or igniting local controversy. When initially asked his position on marriage equality several years ago, Graham supported a federal amendment banning same-sex marriages. But in expressing the necessity of states’ rights today, his initial position on marriage is one which he hasn’t quite reneged. By not currently taking a clear stance on the issue, politicians who tip-toe around complicated issues do the opposite of what their constituency voted them in office to do: To define law and ensure its passing.

Whether or not the verdict in the Proposition 8 case trumps state legislation by amending the U.S. Constitution in favor of same-sex marriage remains to be seen. But if this occurs, voided Southern state laws against marriage equality could remain on the books for years in a sort of passive aggressive move against the federal government. Long after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1863, Mississippi finally got around to “legalizing” it on a state level in 1995. As was the case after Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriages (Alabama was the last state to modify its constitution in 2000). One inevitably has to ask: Just who is this reluctance harming? The national government, or the minorities who dwell within the boundaries of a stubborn Southern state? After all, aren’t these citizens also “the people” who Graham and other legislators claim the state is best at serving and protecting?

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