Why fight to delay the inevitable when gays in places like Alabama suffer as a result?
The controversy in Alabama will be seen as an instance of a southern state battling the federal government to deny equal rights to a minority group. "Chief Justice Moore rose to national prominence in the early 2000s when he defied a federal judge’s order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a Montgomery building and was subsequently ousted from his post leading the high court," The New York Times reports. "He staged a comeback, became chief justice again in 2013, and has ... said that Alabama’s probate judges are not bound by a federal trial court ... His argument has deep resonance in a place where a governor, George Wallace, stood in a doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963 in an unsuccessful bid to block its federally ordered integration."
Debates on this subject usually turn on whether or to what degree the comparison between segregationists and opponents of gay marriage is accurate or fair. Less noticed is the most significant difference between the two civil rights battles.
States' rights delayed the equality of blacks.
In contrast, federalism has hastened the advance of gay marriage. According to Pew, the first time more Americans supported than opposed gay marriage was in 2011. And it didn't reach 50 percent support until 2013—the same year that a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional (an outcome owed partly to states' rights arguments). And it's hard to imagine gay marriage getting through a post-2013 Congress with even one chamber controlled by Republicans.
Whereas a state-by-state approach, proceeding via the ballot box, legislatures, and challenges referencing state constitutions, brought gay marriage to Massachusetts in 2003; Connecticut in 2008; Iowa and Vermont in 2009; New Hampshire in 2010; New York in 2011; Maine and Washington in 2012; California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 2013; and 19 more states after that.
The earliest states to legalize gay marriage almost certainly helped to shift public opinion at the national level: The nation saw touching photographs from weddings; activists newly convinced in the possibility of victory joined the cause; and everybody saw that no apparent catastrophe ensued after same-sex couples wed. More states started grappling with the fact that their residents could go elsewhere to marry even if they weren't yet allowed to do so in their hometowns. And for some, refusing to recognize the union of people who'd wed elsewhere was too much.
That's what changed their mind.
Legality in just a few states also enabled TV shows and films to portray gay weddings as normal celebrations rather than unrealistic fantasy or politicized protest. And again, tens of thousands of people were actually able to marry one another long before there was any chance of a national gay marriage bill in a country where Barack Obama didn't even voice support for the practice until 2012.