Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Return of the States Rights Debate: Same Sex Marriage Edition

By Jackson WeberPublished February 18, 2015

Once again, the state of Alabama is attempting to assert the argument of states rights in debate of a controversial social issue. This time, the issue is gay marriage. Gone is George Wallace defending segregation and present is Chief Justice Roy Moore working to resist the federal judiciary system.

Throughout history, the state of Alabama, its elected officials, and residents have prioritized states' rights over the power of the Federal Government. From the Civil War to the era of Jim Crow laws, this topic has remained on the forefront of Alabama's political conscience. Now, yet again, the states' rights debate rears its head in resistance to the liberal shift of national social policy.

            For the last few decades, same sex marriage stood as one of the most often debated and controversial social policy issues. Just like another divisive social policy issue, abortion rights, same sex marriage conflicts with many Americans' closely held religious beliefs. Supporters of same sex marriage believe that gay and lesbian couples are being denied a universal right that heterosexual citizens are exclusively able to exercise. The strong convictions of both sides of this debate have turned it into an incredibly polarizing issue. Despite that, public support of same sex marriage has trended strongly upward since the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. In 1996, only 27% of Americans felt that same sex marriages should be "recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages" according to a Gallup poll. By 2004, that number reached 42%. Although fluctuation occurred over the next several years, since 2011 it has gone nowhere but up, with 55% of Americans supporting marriage equality in Gallup's final 2014 poll.

            In spite of national upward trends in same sex marriage support, certain regions and states, like Alabama, remain steadfast in their lack of support for same sex marriage. In 2006, approximately 81% of Alabama residents supported a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. It is that amendment and its legality that bring us to the current controversy in Alabama surrounding same sex marriage. Over a week ago, Federal District Court judge Callie V. Granade ruled that Alabama's state constitutional amendment was unconstitutional on the basis that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. Preemptively Alabama's Chief Justice, Roy Moore ordered county probate judges not to issue marriage licenses that contradict and are inconsistent with current state laws. Very blatantly, Chief Justice Moore is attempting to reassert the state of Alabama's power to ignore the laws of the federal government, just as Governor George Wallace attempted to do in maintaining the segregation status quo over 50 years ago. As an elected political official, it certainly makes sense for Moore to attempt to take action against a ruling many Alabamans most likely disagree with. However, he must be forced to abide by the federal ruling and maintain the current balance of power in the federalist system. Even though Chief Justice is a political, elected position, that does not provide the person in that position the leniency to disregard the established national judicial system. While some county judges did not hesitate to ignore Moore's decree, the vast majority of county judges followed his demand as about 50 of 67 Alabama counties refused to marry gay and lesbian couples.

<span "font-size:12.0pt;font-family:"times="" roman";mso-fareast-font-family:="" "MS="" 明朝";mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast;mso-ansi-language:en-us;="" mso-fareast-language:en-us;mso-bidi-language:ar-sa"="" style="">            This April, the Supreme Court of the United States is set to hear four cases regarding the legality of same sex marriage. Given the recent SCOTUS trends, it appears increasingly likely a majority will rule in support of marriage equality across the nation. Dissenter Clarence Thomas even alluded to that likelihood following the release of the Alabama District Court ruling. When the day comes that all Americans are able to marry the person they love regardless of their sex or sexual orientation, it will be a step forward for a country that for too long has remained in the wrong on this issue. Certainly states rights are an important part of federalism and must be maintained; yet it is critical that individual states, such as Alabama, end their attempts to deny the power of the federal judiciary on such impactful issues.
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