Across from my desk is a framed front page of The Sun from nigh on a quarter of a century ago. “Up Yours Delors”, it proclaims. Plucky Britain was standing up to Brussels and its then top official, Jacques Delors, who meant to rob us of our precious pound.
There was profit, political and otherwise, for those posing as protectors of the British “soul”, whatever that means, against the Eurocrat marauders. Margaret Thatcher played that game, so did The Sun.
Put more politely, the debate then – I was on the Brussels beat in those days – was about something called “subsidiarity”. To what extent could member states hew to their own paths without imperilling the integrity of the whole? It’s a tension that probably will never go away. It certainly hasn’t in another and much older experiment in federalism commonly known as the USA.
The American states’ rights movement is strong (and angry). It flowered at the start of this decade with the birth of the Tea Party, fuelled by a widely held aversion to anything seen as the long arm of federal “big” government intruding on state affairs (and Barack Obama).
But it’s not often that it comes to the kind of pass we are witnessing right now in Alabama where Chief Justice Roy Moore has declared “up yours” to the US Supreme Court in Washington, to which the only response should be “whoa there”, even if it promises to make him a hero to plenty of folk too.
This is where the states’ rights war toxically intersects with America’s culture war. Justice Moore is fighting a rearguard action against a federal judge in Alabama who has ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. On Monday, the US Supreme Court turned down a request by the state for a stay on that ruling, in theory giving probate judges across the state no choice but to begin issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples. Justice Moore has ordered them not to.
The result is a judicial tangle that may or may not be clarified today when the federal judge in question, Judge Callie Granade of Mobile, holds a hearing to determine what happens now. Gay and lesbian couples have successfully married in some counties, while in others they have been rebuffed.
It is not the first time that Justice Moore has placed himself in a long tradition of resistance by southern states to the heavy thumb of Washington. During his first stint as Chief Justice back in 2003, he placed a hulking monument to the Ten Commandments in the lobby of the state judicial building. It was eventually removed – despite a refusal to do so from Justice Moore, and so was he. He was re-elected to the position in 2012. His actions are being likened to those of Governor George Wallace resisting racial integration when he blocked the doors of the University of Alabama in 1963. It is not a comparison anyone should welcome, particularly on the eve of the anniversaries both of the Selma March on Montgomery and the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “I don’t want Alabama to be seen as it was 50 years ago when a federal law was defied,” today’s Governor, Robert Bentley, said this week. “I am trying to move this state forward.”
Defiance sells and Justice Moore may relish making a stand against a flood tide he knows is running against him –Alabama is now the 37th state permitting same-sex marriage. But his position causes direct harm to thousands of gay couples in his state and the children many are now parenting. It benefits only bigotry.
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