With recent events in Utah and other states, there’s been a lot of talk about human rights. In states like Utah and Oklahoma, citizens have turned to the federal judicial system to fight against state laws banning gay marriage that they believe to be unconstitutional. In Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court is attempting to avoid jumping into the women’s rights battlefield over abortion legislation.
In all of it, the focus has been almost entirely on human rights and quite a deal less on other such matters like state rights and federal intervention. Yeah, human rights seems like it should come first. They’re basic, and they immediately and directly affect everyday life for thousands of people. They’re more personal, too, so they resonate easier with the general public. But the root of the problem isn’t really there. In truth, the trouble comes from the question of where state rights and self-management ends and federal regulation and necessity of intervention begins. What issues should be decided by the federal government and what should be left to the states?
The big issues in particular right now are LGBT rights and women’s rights — more specifically, same-sex marriage and abortion. Two issues sure to blow up any room filled with people old enough to have opinions. They’re often compared to the Civil Rights Movement, especially same-sex marriage, and while that’s likely not the most accurate comparison, it does bring to mind the state laws many Southern states created to legally discriminate against people of color. Eventually, the federal government had to step in. For most people nowadays, those Jim Crow laws are as unconstitutional as straight-up slavery. There’s no argument there that they went completely against basic human rights.
Many people would argue that LGBT and women’s rights are both issues of basic human rights granted by the Constitution. Probably just as many people would argue that marriage is a privilege and the rights of a fetus outweigh the rights of the mother. If we want to get over our issues with these rights discussions now, the federal government, meaning the state representatives in the federal government, needs to stop pushing the issues around and make a definite declaration of whether these are human rights or not. And if they’re human rights? Then too bad, state government. Human rights belong in the federal government’s court.
Now, don’t get us wrong. The state governments are great, because they get to cater to the opinion of the majority of their select populations (in theory). If you’d rather not to live in a state with a weird tax system, then you have the option of moving to another state with a system you like. If you don’t like the funding of the educational system of one state, then you have the option of jumping over to the one next door. The variety among states, no matter how much smaller it might be compared to federal law, gives the public choices and a sense of accountability, and you know how we are about choices here in the U.S. The states are given power to protect their constituents’ general interests and fight back if they feel like the federal government is treating them unfairly and potentially vice versa, due to our system of checks and balances. And if you don’t like something in your state, then you can move out.
But that sentiment does cause problems, especially with such matters as LGBT rights being left up to the states. Many states don’t recognize same-sex marriages as legal, which throws all sorts of kinks into problems if a same-sex couple who was legally married in one state moves to another state that doesn’t recognize it. If, for instance, that couple eventually decides to divorce for whatever reason (as many couples do, regardless of sexual orientation), then they end up with all sorts of legal problems. How do you divide up property between a married couple who is legally married according to the property accounts but not legally married according to the state laws? It’s a headache many people have to deal with. Think of how easy this would be if the federal government ruled that the ability to marry whoever you wanted was a human right, and that human rights are regulated by the federal government.
We don’t need the federal government involved in everything. But we do need a clear defense of human rights.