The “same-sex marriage” debate reminds me why I have always been wary of the “state’s rights” banner flown all too often by Wyoming politicians. My earliest recollection of the phrase was how it was used by segregationists. During the African-American civil rights movement, the term "states' rights" was a code word for the defense of segregation.
Alabama Governor George Wallace was a big state’s rights guy. He famously declared in his inaugural address in 1962, "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" Wallace later explained himself. What he meant, he clarified, was, "States' rights now! States' rights tomorrow! States' rights forever!"
When I hear politicians scream about state’s rights, I see the indelible images of a Little Rock mob screaming at nine little black children as they walked toward a school house door blocked by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. Elizabeth Eckford was one of those nine children. She described what it was like to have people with power protesting her right to simply get an education. “They moved closer and closer. Somebody started yelling. I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”
Today I see their philosophical descendants, a new generation of state’s rights politicians, barring entry to another door and spitting on those who seek to pass through that door.
There is great irony in the current debate. It is not enough that Wyoming long ago exercised its “right” as a state to discriminate against homosexuals by denying them the right to marry whom they would choose. That’s not the issue in 2011. That train left the station years ago. Wyoming banned same sex marriage long before national politicians realized how much could be gained by making it a hot button issue. Our state acted even before Congress passed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.
Ours are legislators who have made an art form of defending “state’s rights” for Wyoming. But the current debate is about denying the rights of their state legislator colleagues in other states their state’s right to make that choice for their own people. The law Wyoming seems intent on passing says Wyoming doesn’t care about the rights of another state to determine this issue. If legislators in other states exercise their state’s rights, Wyoming intends to nullify that choice.
Get it? In the final analysis this isn’t about state’s rights. It’s about barring some folks from the door to civil rights...and “state’s rights” is still nothing more than a code word.