From Selma to same-sex marriage: Civil rights not a state issue

It’s ironic that the movie Selma is in theaters and up for two Academy Awards as the state of Alabama tries to turn back the clock on the civil rights issue of same-sex marriage.

Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders led historic marches in Alabama over voting rights for African-Americans. The actions started in Selma as marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to the state capital of Montgomery in an attempt to secure voting rights. Alabama Gov. George Wallace famously stood in the way, just as he had in 1963 when he refused to integrate Alabama schools. Wallace refused to protect the marchers, and they were met with billy clubs and tear gas by state troopers and county posses. As told in the film (even if some details are incorrect), President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, getting rid of impediments to voting such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and the like.

Fast-forward to 2015. The state’s ban on marriage equality was deemed unconstitutional by federal courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to issue a stay on those rulings. Alabama was set to become the 37th state where same-sex couples could be legally married. But then — enter Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.

The ultra-conservative Moore infamously made a name for himself when, in his first go-round as Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, he installed a monument of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Judicial Building. He then refused to remove it, even after being ordered to do so by a federal judge. He was suspended and finally removed from his judicial post in 2003 by a state ethics panel. But voters returned him to the Supreme Court in 2012.

Just as Wallace disagreed with civil rights laws in the 1960s, Moore has decided that he disagrees with federal civil rights rulings in 2015. So even though the state of Alabama is now required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Moore ordered county probate judges not to issue the licenses. The outcome was mixed, as some counties followed the federal ruling and some followed Moore’s directive. Some counties avoided the problem altogether by refusing to issue marriage licenses to anyone.

Fifty years after Selma, Robert Bentley, Alabama’s Republican governor, decided that he’s no George Wallace. He gave at least a lukewarm nod to the federal civil rights decision. Although Moore passed the buck himself, saying it would be up to Bentley to take action against probate judges who issued same-sex marriage licenses, Bentley said he would not penalize judges, and that he would allow the issue of same-sex marriage “to be worked out through the proper legal channels.” News flash: The issue already has been worked out through the proper legal channels. It’s over.

Moore and other opponents of same-sex marriage apparently still think they have a chance to win the fight, but it’s over. The Supreme Court’s refusal to let the same-sex marriage ban stay in place until it rules on the issue nationally — probably in June — gave a clear signal that there are not enough justices on the side of discrimination any more.

Public opinion has shifted, too. More than half of Americans now support same-sex marriage. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Americans are in favor, while 40 percent are against. In 2001, those numbers were reversed: Only 37 percent favored same-sex marriage, and 57 percent were against it. And still worse for conservative culture warriors is the fact that 67 percent of Millennials say it’s fine. Battle lines are mostly along age lines and between conservative Christians and most everyone else.

Those still fighting the culture wars aren’t giving up. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who may have missed some history classes growing up, thinks a constitutional amendment is the answer — besides the amendment that he wants banning same-sex marriage.

“We’re a nation of laws, that’s why I said I want the Supreme Court not to overturn our laws,” he told CNN. “If the Supreme Court were to do this, I think the remedy would be a constitutional amendment in the Congress to tell the courts you can’t overturn what the states have decided.” Actually, governor, Marbury v. Madison established the power of judicial review in 1803. It’s a little late for that.

Except, perhaps, for the GOP. In a compilation of polls, an October ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that only 26 percent of those who identified as Republicans favored same-sex marriage, while a whopping 64 percent of them were opposed. What will this mean for the 2016 GOP presidential field? Just about all of them are on record supporting “traditional” marriage over same-sex marriage. As they face conservative voters in GOP primaries next year, those same voters probably will want to hear them take the traditional marriage pledge — a position that could make them sound as out of touch as George Wallace come Nov. 8, 2016.

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