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Sunday Late Night: Marriage Is Not a Laboratory Animal

(photo: i love paintings/flickr)

Our “states’ rights” president thinks it’s just swell for states to sort out marriage equality, which is of course wrong.

If marriage is a civil right in America, as the Supreme Court long ago said it is, then states don’t have the right to prohibit some people from having one. Like states can’t stop some citizens from voting, or sending their kids to school together, or — um, marrying people of another race.

Despite the LGBT and progressive delight over President Obama’s recent evolution based on talking with his daughters about their friends’ parents relationships, please count me unimpressed. Sure, I’m happy to see anyone ‘evolve’ in his understanding of people not like himself. Who doesn’t want a president who personally believes that relationships’ recognition granted by the state should not be gender-dependent?

But why did Barack Obama need to cloak his welcome evolution in a states’ rights wrapper?

And what you’re seeing is, I think, states working through this issue– in fits and starts, all across the country. Different communities are arriving at different conclusions, at different times. And I think that’s a healthy process and a healthy debate. And I continue to believe that this is an issue that is gonna be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what’s recognized as a marriage.

“Challenged” by interviewer Robin Roberts, Obama expanded, ungracefully, on his states-as-laboratories theme:

Well– well– well, what I’m saying is is that different states are coming to different conclusions. But this debate is taking place– at a local level. And I think the whole country is evolving and changing. And– you know, one of the things that I’d like to see is– that a conversation continue in a respectful way.

I think it’s important to recognize that– folks– who– feel very strongly that marriage should be defined narrowly as– between a man and a woman– many of them are not coming at it from a mean-spirited perspective. They’re coming at it because they care about families. And– they– they have a different understanding, in terms of– you know, what the word “marriage” should mean. And I– a bunch of ’em are friends of mine– you know, pastors and– you know, people who– I deeply respect.

Congrats to ABC for not cleaning up Obama’s sloppy apologia for states rights, bigotry enshrined in law and the mean-spiritedness of not “many” of marriage equality opponents. “They aren’t all haters” isn’t going to win Obama any support among those aligned with the haters.

His argument falls into the “states are our democracy’s laboratories” excuse for allowing governors to misuse federal block grants, build substandard housing for the poor, break public employee unions, and enact educational voucher programs to support religious schools. But the Supreme Court, in a decision relevant to Obama and his own parents’ marriage, long ago ruled that marriage was a civil right. No one’s ‘federalizing’ marriage in the 21st century. It was federalized long ago in Loving:

Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival. Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535, 541 (1942). See also Maynard v. Hill, 125 U.S. 190 (1888). To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.

My marriage rights, which are a “basic civil right,” cannot be determined by state legislators or even my fellow citizens, who may not agree about my or others’ civil rights. But not one gets to vote on them to create a hodgepodge of state restrictions on marriage.

Civil rights are civil rights.

Marriage is not a laboratory animal. States don’t get to tinker with basic civil rights in America, to try to find the solution most popular with their residents. American civil rights are, by definition, federalized. President Obama’s ringing endorsement of states’ rights to restrict citizens’ rights should not be celebrated by those seeking marriage equality. This view is a throwback to the Democratic Party’s worst compromise of the previous century: with bigots, massive resisters, former Klan members and godbotherers who divided humanity by the color of our skin.

His states’ rights approach must be rejected out of hand. Okay, congratulations to Obama on his personal evolution. I hope his LGBT staffers, as well as his daughters’ friends’ parents and his Big Gay Bundlers, are happy that Barack Obama recognizes and endorses their marital unions. His daughters’ sleepovers at the homes of same-sex parents might be a bit less awkward now; granting personal leave to White House staffers marrying same-gender partners will be celebrated, perhaps. Yay.

But a 21st century Democratic party’s presidential standard-bearer who so heartily endorses states’ rights takes us back to the middle of the last century. Harry Truman was America’s last Democrat in the White House who believed in states’ rights to legislate basic civil rights.

Until Obama.

PS. Yes, welcome back from sabbatical, to me. Many many thanks to FDL’s leadership, and to you my readers and commenters, for allowing me this long family-driven break. I’m back, but I am abusing the privilege one more Sunday, by taking my husband to dinner for his birthday. I’ll be back to chat next week. Don’t break the blog while I’m away, please. You’ve all behaved very well these past two months. See you next Sunday!

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