Demagogues and nullifiers and the last gasp of anti-equality forces in North Carolina

Demagogues and nullifiers and the last gasp of anti-equality forces in North Carolina

- in Fitzsimon File

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Almost every significant move toward justice and equality prompts a backlash.

Cynical elected officials preying on ignorance and pandering to fears for their own political gain. Far-right zealots distorting the fundamental structure of our democracy to rail against an expansion of basic human rights.

And extremist groups weighing in from the fringe, using the limelight of the moment to renew their call for a host of reactionary ideas.

It is often as ugly as it is predictable and it is happening now in the wake of the rulings by two federal judges that North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Gay couples are getting married across North Carolina, finally able to access the same rights and privileges in our society that straight couples have long taken for granted.

Good for them. It took far too long, but marriage equality is here.

Playing the part of cynical politician preying on ignorance and pandering to fears is Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who along with House Speaker Thom Tillis has pledged to fight the decisions, even though the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals that has jurisdiction over North Carolina has ruled in favor of same sex marriage and the U.S. Supreme Court chose to let that decision stand.

Berger knows better. He is a lawyer after all. And not content with wasting taxpayer money on futile appeals, he has also promised to introduce legislation to allow magistrates to refuse to marry gay couples if it violates their religious views.

Berger made the pitch to a crowd waving Christian flags in front of the courthouse in his home county this week. It is an absurd idea that government employees whose job responsibilities include marrying people who are legally qualified to be wed can simply refuse to marry the couples they don’t approve of.

The courts have already ruled on this issue too in a way. As ACLU Legal Director Chris Brook pointed out, two magistrates in Forsyth County refused to marry an interracial couple in 1977, citing their religious opposition to interracial marriage.  The couple asked the court to intervene and it did, ruling in favor of the couple and rejecting the magistrates’ claims about religious freedoms.

Government employees cannot pick and choose which qualified people they will provide services to. Berger surely knows that as well. But this is not about the law or the court’s ruling anyway.

It is about Berger trying to be a political hero to the hardcore Republican base, a strategy that might feel good for the moment with all the flags waving but one that puts him outside the mainstream in North Carolina and far out of touch with the newest generation of voters who already see him as a relic of the homophobic past.

Playing the role of fundamentalist zealot in power—the George Wallace of the anti-equality movement—-is Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest,  who said right after the ruling that an  “unelected federal judge violated the principles of this great nation,” and asked supporters to stand against judicial tyranny.

And he didn’t stop there. Forest invoked the specter of states’ rights, questioning the legitimacy of the judge whose ruling overturned the ban on same-sex marriage and citing the Tenth Amendment that he seems to think allows states to nullify federal laws and rulings by federal courts that they don’t like.

It’s a reactionary idea straight from the Wallace era but it has been mentioned before by the folks currently in power in Raleigh.

Several GOP legislators addressed a nullification rally on the lawn behind the Legislative Building on the first day of the 2013 General Assembly session and the head of the NC Republican Party thanked the organizers for what they were doing.  And what they were doing was pushing for nullification.

Fourteen members of the state House signed onto a resolution last session that called for creating an official state religion, declaring that people in North Carolina are not subject to decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and proclaims that the state can decide on its own  what is constitutional and what is not.

Among the 14 Republicans who signed the state religion resolution were the House Majority Leader and budget committee chair, both senior members of the House leadership team.

This week Forest issued another missive, supporting Berger’s call to allow magistrates to refuse to marry gay couples and hoping that a magistrate would challenge a memo instructing them to perform the marriages, citing a possible “constitutional showdown.”

It makes you wonder what‘s next for Forest, a call for North Carolina to secede from the federal government that he seems to think is illegitimate?

It’s all pathetic, but enlightening.

It reveals the cynicism of one small-town politician, basking in the dissipating glow of discrimination, and the extremism of another, a statewide official who is now openly leading the offensive and dangerous states right movement, rejecting North Carolina’s place in the United States.

They can’t seem to stop themselves and neither can the allegedly “family values” groups that are trying to prevent families from being together and enjoying basic rights in our society.

But history and common decency and popular opinion are not on their side. All they have left is fear and vitriol and extremist calls that reveal how out of touch they are with the conspicuous shift toward compassion and equality being made right before their eyes.

They can scream and rail and demagogue all they want. Marriage equality, thank goodness, is here to stay.