Gov. Rick Perry Is a 10th-Amendment Turncoat

After touting his support for states' rights, he pandered to social conservatives by calling for a constitutional amendment overruling New York on gay marriage

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Earlier this week, I noted that Gov. Rick Perry (R-Tex.) was standing firm on his states' rights convictions, insisting that issues like medical marijuana and gay marriage should be handled by the people of different jurisdictions as they see fit. "That is the beauty of this union," he told Jon Stewart in a November 2010 interview. And on the recent decision to legalize gay marriage in the Empire State? "That's New York, and that's their business, and that's fine with me. That is their call," he said. "If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business."

How deeply does Perry believe in the 10th Amendment? As it turns out, not deeply enough for his advocacy on its "beauty" and wisdom to survive an interview with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. By its end, he is speaking out on behalf of the Federal Marriage Amendment, a proposal that would define marriage everywhere in the United States as being between one man and one woman, effectively overturning the actions of New York's duly elected legislature, and preventing even citizen-backed ballot initiatives from legalizing gay marriage in the future.

In the interview, Perry and Perkins both try to make this sound as though it is the real states' rights position:

TONY PERKINS I think marriage and family policy is best dealt with at the state level. But the tenth amendment -- and I am a strong supporter. I fought the federal government on a number of issues when they were trying to force us to do things. But when you look at what's happening on marriage, the real fear is that states like New York will change the definition of marriage for Texas. At that point the states rights argument is lost.

GOV. PERRY Right and that is the reason that the federal marriage amendment is being offered, it's that small group of activist judges, and frankly a small handful, if you will, of states, and liberal special interests groups that intend on a redefinition of, if you will, marriage on the nation, for all of us, which I adamantly oppose. Indeed to not pass the federal marriage amendment would impinge on Texas, and other states not to have marriage forced upon us by these activist judges and special interest groups.

Translation: We support the 10th amendment until the people of another state decide an issue in a way that affects us. As these men surely know, a state's drinking age, gambling laws, agricultural policies, drug laws, and many other policies besides affect its neighbors. Should all those issues be federalized too?

That's only the beginning of the wrongheadedness of that exchange. In New York, activist judges didn't pass gay marriage, the legislature did. Support for gay marriage in every state includes more straight people than gay people, so it's disingenuous to describe its enactment as being due to a special interest -- a lot of people regard equality in marriage as a matter of general interest. And state supreme courts, whatever the philosophy of the judges who sit on them, are legitimate parts of state governments, as laid out in their constitutions. Insofar as their rulings change state policy, that too comes under the rubric of states' rights.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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