Published April 24. 2014 4:00AM
Tuesday's Supreme Court decision upholding Michigan's opposition to affirmative action in higher education may not just set back civil rights, as many fear, but on a broader plane it further polarizes a country that is becoming less like the United States of America and more like the Balkan Peninsula.
This newspaper is concerned that when considered along with laws governing such issues as gun control, health care, same-sex marriage, abortion and the death penalty, the affirmative action ruling promotes a growing trend that champions states' rights over national unity.
As Abraham Lincoln warned in 1858, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Mr. Lincoln, elected president two years later just as southern states were seceding in the buildup to the Civil War, was referring to slavery in his "house divided" speech.
The dispute settled by the high court Tuesday is far more nuanced.
It stems from a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in admissions to the state's public universities - a policy similar to restrictions adopted by seven other states. Opponents of the ruling - most notably Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who in her impassioned dissent said the Constitution demands close oversight because of slavery, Jim Crow and "recent examples of discriminatory changes to state voting laws" - point out that states that forbid affirmative action in higher education wind up with far fewer black and Hispanic students enrolled in top-rated colleges and universities.
But in writing for the 6-2 majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's noted, "This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court's precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters."
We see it this way: Minorities in America have come a long way since racial quotas were established - in large measure because of those very quotas. You could even make a case that quotas should be eased because of this progress.
But though the country has come a long way in reconciling its racial prejudices - after all, we now have a black president - it would be a mistake to assume that the United States has achieved total equality by race or ethnicity. There are still prejudices to overcome.
Regarding the complex patchwork of laws in place across the country, we are particularly concerned that Tuesday's ruling continues to extend different rights to citizens depending on where they live.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting massacre, Connecticut and other states passed strict laws governing the sale and possession of various weapons, principally large-magazine semi-automatics that have often been used in mass shootings. Many of these states also require extensive background permits and limit where and how concealed weapons can be carried.
On the other hand, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a law Wednesday expanding the scope of public places where licensed owners are allowed to carry firearms to include bars, some government offices, schools and even houses of worship. The bill also eliminates the fingerprinting requirement for renewing licenses to carry weapons, prohibits the state from creating and maintaining a database of licensed weapons carriers and repeals the state-required license for firearms dealers.
Consider also the confusion created by conflicting state laws on same-sex marriage. Is a couple legally married in Connecticut entitled to the same privileges in Montana?
What about the death penalty? Why are murderers executed in Texas but given a life sentence in Rhode Island?
And why should women in Mississippi have less access to legal abortions than those in Massachusetts?
So many different laws in so many different states. In such a mobile society, how can U.S. citizens keep track of what they can or can't do?
As John Adams once observed, "We are a nation of laws, not of men." Only by accepting this premise will we remain the United States of America.