Rick Perry's Fair-Weather Federalism

The Texas governor backtracks on his 10th Amendment support for New York's gay marriage law.


Two of Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry's most cherished loves are in conflict. Those two things are the 10th Amendment, which states that the "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively or to the people"; and right-wing holy rollers, a constituency that Perry will need if he decides to seek the GOP presidential nomination.  

Since 2009, when Perry made headlines by reminding the nation that Texas had once been an independent republic, and "could," according to his spokeswoman, "secede if it wanted," Perry's two great loves existed in separate spheres.

The religious right did not make a peep when Perry said shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, "I believe the federal government has become oppressive. I believe it's become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of its citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state." Christian conservatives had no qualms with Perry's endorsement of a nonbinding resolution authored in the Texas legislature that reaffirmed the protections provided by the 10th Amendment. Being opposed to public education specifically and Democrats in general, the religious right did not ding Perry when he said earlier this year that "Obamacare, the EPA's takeover of Texas' successful air permitting program, and a misguided amendment to the education jobs bill filed by Rep. Lloyd Doggett in his attempt to require the governor to make assurances in violation of the Texas Constitution" were all violations of the 10th Amendment.

In fact, Perry's love for the 10th Amendment was fine and dandy until he said last week that New York's gay marriage law was none of Texas' business.

"Our friends in New York six weeks ago passed a statute that said that marriage can be between two people of the same sex and you know what that is New York and that is their business and that is fine with me, that is their call," Perry said at an event in Colorado. "If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business."

That statement did not sit well with Tony Perkins, president of the once (and apparently still) influential Family Research Council. Perkins quickly got Perry to submit to an interview, so that he could recant.

"I think marriage and family policy is best dealt with at the state level," Perkins said. "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."

Perry heartily agreed. "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."

Perkins continued to lead Perry through his absolution: "Governor, we are about out of time but I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I think I hear what you are saying. The support given what's happening across the nation, the fear of the courts, the administration's failure to defend the defense of marriage act."

And Perry, like the false mother who went before King Solomon to determine the parentage of a stolen baby, gladly cut the baby in half rather than maintain his defense of the 10th Amendment. 

"I have long supported the appointment of judges who respect the constitution and the passage of a federal marriage amendment," Perry said in the final minutes of his interview with Perkins. "That amendment defines marriage between one man and one woman, and it protects the states from being told otherwise."

Putting aside for a moment that the president has no role in the amendment process, and that with enough time and fear-mongering, the Constitution could be amended to such an extent that the 10th Amendment would be absolutely worthless, Perry's conversation with Perkins suggests that he is either confused, or a liar. For Perkins wasn't the only person Perry spoke to this week about his comments in Aspen. On the same day the Perkins interview appeared, the Texas governor told the New Hampshire Union Leader, "If you're going to respect the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, you can't go picking and choosing" which laws to shove down the states' throats.

Either way—confused or lying—Perry's lip service to the 10th Amendment appears to be exactly that.

Mike Riggs is an associate editor at Reason magazine.