On May 17, 1954, the day the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Clarence Thomas was five years old. His home state, Georgia, reacted to Brown with outrage and resistance. In the years following the decision, the general assembly passed a law requiring the governor to prevent state funds from going to integrated public schools. Then-Governor Marvin Griffin declared that “no matter how much the Supreme Court seeks to sugarcoat its bitter pill of tyranny, the people of Georgia and the South will not swallow it.”
Sixty-one years later, things have changed. “While I believe that this issue should be decided by the states and by legislatures, not the federal judiciary, I also believe in the rule of law, ”wrote Georgia Governor Nathan Deal in response to the Court’s decision on same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. “The state of Georgia is subject to the laws of the United States, and we will follow them.”
For the most part, this political passivity has been echoed throughout the South, and it’s a testament to how much has changed in America in the last six decades. Everywhere, there are signs that social conservatives are in retreat; even as some on the right retrench against gay marriage, the debate is centering more and more on individual rights, rather than institutional defiance. In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced that county clerks and judges can choose not to issue same-sex marriage licenses or conduct wedding ceremonies if they have religious objections to doing so. Though these clerks may face lawsuits and other legal challenges, “numerous lawyers stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs,” Paxton said. Before Obergefell, North Carolina legislators passed a law allowing clerks and judges to abstain from issuing all kinds of marriage licenses if they have a personal, religious objection to gay marriage. And a somewhat-similar bill has been introduced in Kentucky, following ongoing controversy over several county clerks who have refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses.