Same-Sex Marriage and the Civil Rights Movement

February 10, 2014 Updated: April 24, 2016

This weekend, it was reported that Attorney General Eric Holder will instruct the federal government to acknowledge same-sex marriages even among states who do not.  This means all the rights and benefits heterosexual couples enjoy will be afforded to same-sex couples.

This news comes at an interesting time.  Russia, who is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, has been under fire for their treatment of gays and their anti-propaganda law which bars anyone from supporting homosexuals – contrary to the Olympic Charter.  The Justice Department announcement also comes during Black History Month.  Why are the two related?  Holder is expected to compare the civil rights movement and the struggle for racial equality to that of marriage equality.  POLITICO reported Attorney General Holder plans to say, “As all-important as the fight against racial discrimination was then, and remains today, know this: my commitment to confronting discrimination based on sexual orientation runs just as deep.”

The left-leaning organization, ThinkProgress published a map outlining nine states with anti-gay laws similar to those of Russia.  Despite Russia being in the spotlight currently, the map also draws similar parallels to the segregationist South and hits directly on Attorney General Holder’s point.  Of the nine states on the ThinkProgress map, six of the states are covered as a whole under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, what is referred to as the preclearance section.  What that means is each of these five states (Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas) must receive permission from the Justice Department before they enact new election laws.  However, the Supreme Court struck down the prerequisites for preclearance citing outdated data and invalidating this portion of the law.

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, this still points to regions in the United States that have a dubious history on universal rights.  After a federal district judge threw out Oklahoma’s ban on gay marriage, their legislature is now mulling over getting rid of marriage all together as a way to “keep same-sex marriage illegal in Oklahoma while satisfying the U.S. Constitution.”  Marriage equality is the next major civil rights battle and these laws point to an increasingly conservative Republican Party.  The Republican Party is becoming so extreme that the Arizona Republican Party censured John McCain for being too liberal in regards to his voting record.

Liberals do not have to own the marriage equality debate.  Moderate Republicans should jump at the chance to be in front of the next civil rights battle.  Republicans such as Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Mark Kirk (R-IL) have supported gay marriage and may be able to help snowball efforts in their caucus.  However, since it is an election year, many decide to distance themselves from hot button issues and play it safe, which for the short term puts any real legislative change farther out of reach.

From early indications, it appears as if the tide is turning against the majority of the Republican Party on marriage equality with several states’ same-sex marriage bans being struck down by federal courts and now the Attorney General’s announcement.  As always, federalism has states tied up in knots.  During the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, the federal government was the catalyst for change in states such as Arkansas where President Eisenhower had to call in the National Guard just to let nine children attend school.  The individual states do not want to be told what to do and they believe they have sole jurisdiction to regulate marriage.

The drastic measures being pursued by these states further alienate large swaths of voters and contribute to the Russian sentiment.  If jurisdictions within the United States have highly suspect anti-gay laws on the books, how can the US serve as a model for the rest of the world in protesting against Russia’s laws during the Olympic Games?  The federal government is trying to take a stand on these issues and provide some substance to their position on the world stage.  While individual states may be putting up a fuss, the United States will use it’s “supremacy power” to provide credibility to their disdain for Russia’s laws.  Is it coincidence that the Attorney General’s announcement about marriage equality comes during Black History Month?  The Civil Rights movement was a highly charged time in United States’ history and spurred real change.

It is likely the issue of gay marriage will go back to the Supreme Court despite two rulings on the issue last term.  Their rulings were ambiguous and still left a lot of room for states to enact their own laws.  It will be interesting to see how nine unelected, unaccountable justices will interpret the existing laws regarding marriage equality.