Defend our rights, but from whom?

“We dare defend our rights.”

The motto is ubiquitous in Alabama. One of these days, the people of Alabama — not just the power brokers — need to give it some thought.

Specifically, who is the “we” providing the defense and whose rights are being defended?

Historically, the words were part of a poem slamming the British monarchy. Since becoming Alabama’s official motto — and more recently the slogan of the state GOP, which controls every aspect of state government — it is an attack on the federal government. It also is the unofficial motto of many tea party groups nationwide.

For decades, the words have been the bitter protest of an underdog. Beginning in 1787, when the U.S. Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, states’ rights have been on the decline. The Civil War and the reconstruction era that followed put an exclamation point on that decline in Alabama.

It’s a new era, though.

A conservative U.S. Supreme Court has elevated states’ rights and limited federal authority. The rise of the anti-Washington tea party, and its success in capturing ideological control of the U.S. House of Representatives, has left a power vacuum that states have filled.

So the question of whose rights “we dare defend” as a state suddenly has relevance.

Recent Supreme Court pronouncements underline the power of the Alabama Legislature. While the identity of those whose rights officials have chosen to defend often are obscured by discreet political contributions from ever-more-profitable corporations, the identity of those whose rights elected officials prefer to trample are increasingly clear.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that prevented Alabama from enacting laws that effectively kept black Alabamians from voting or otherwise reducing their political power. State officials immediately crowed this new-found state power meant they could proceed with a Voter ID law. The law requires photo identification as a prerequisite to voting, even though in-person voter fraud is essentially nonexistent in the state. Because poverty is endemic among blacks in Alabama, many have no car and thus no need for the most common form of photo identification, a driver’s license. Blacks in Alabama are more likely to vote for Democrats, a fact well-known to the Republican super-majority in Montgomery, and thanks to the Voter ID law they are less likely to vote.

A Supreme Court decision Wednesday irritated some Alabamians by granting same-sex marriages the same federal benefits enjoyed by couples in heterosexual marriages. In doing so, however, it empowered Alabama in its crusade against homosexuals. By denying homosexuals the right to marry, Alabama can also deny them federal benefits that now will be enjoyed by same-sex couples in other states.

The rights that Alabama “dares to defend,” therefore, do not include the voting rights of blacks or the marital rights of homosexuals.

Another Supreme Court decision struck down a portion of the Affordable Care Act that effectively would have required the state to expand its Medicaid program. The decision was another grant of power to Montgomery politicians, who could reject a portion of a federal law.

Because the Legislature dared defend “our rights,” about 300,000 Alabamians — most of whom have low-paying jobs with no insurance — will lose the right to health care that the working poor in other states soon will enjoy.

The state Legislature also passed a law that endeavored to make life so miserable for undocumented immigrants — and for many of their friends and family members who were U.S. citizens — that they would leave the state. Federal courts struck down much of the law, but enough survived to make clear to Latinos that they were not among those whose rights or opportunities were being defended.

In case there was any ambiguity, the state’s two U.S. senators fought vigorously against a bipartisan majority that on Thursday passed a bill that may bring many undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.

Montgomery legislators also have been free of onerous federal oversight as they have found increasingly creative ways to reduce funding for the public schools that provide the only viable educational opportunity for most children of poor and middle-class Alabama families.

What is clear is that the rights state officials “dare to defend” apply to a dwindling subset of Alabama residents. “Our rights” are not defended if we are black or Hispanic or gay. “Our rights” are irrelevant if we are sick or poor.

The proud motto of Alabama, it turns out, gives comfort to precious few Alabamians. State officials are busy defending someone’s rights, but who is defending the rights of the average Alabamian?

If Alabamians — all of them — ever confront the meaning of the state motto, they may arrive at an uncomfortable realization. The greatest threat to their rights may come not from Washington, but from Montgomery.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Health care, Poverty, States' rights

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