The Supreme Court decision on gay marriage was always going to be historic. What’s surprising is that Friday’s opinion is also moving. Its final paragraph is worth quoting in full:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
That is Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a 5-4 majority. The main dissent, from Chief Justice John Roberts, acknowledges that the policy arguments in favor of gay marriage are strong, but argues that the constitutional case is not. And unusually, it urges the many Americans who support gay marriage to “by all means celebrate today’s decision.”
And so they will. Many of those individuals and families never thought they would live to see this day. The gay-rights movement inched along for decades, notching small victories in liberal cities and states, while also suffering major setbacks. In 1996, a Democratic president signed the Defense of Marriage Act barring the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Many states followed. But as social acceptance of gay men and lesbians spread, support for gay marriage began a swift and steady rise.
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Today, polls show that about 60 percent of Americans favor same-sex marriage. In 1968, a year after the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s law against mixed-race marriages, only 20 percent of Americans approved of them. Thus the court’s ruling is sure to be widely accepted.
Opposition in some conservative quarters, however, remains fierce. Opponents are free to wage a battle to overturn it, via a constitutional amendment or a reconstituted court. Both seem unlikely to succeed in the long run, because public opinion will continue trending in favor of same-sex marriage: Those age 18-34 support it by more than 70 percent.
A more likely line of attack may be “religious liberty” laws that allow discrimination under the guise of conscientious objection. Yet the outrage and economic fallout that followed Indiana’s law, which a Republican governor and legislature quickly watered down, ought to give the opponents of same-sex marriage pause.
The push for gay rights does not end with Friday’s ruling — which lacks the moral unanimity of Brown v. Board of Education. In many states, being gay can still be a firing offense. But it is a quantum leap forward that will confer constitutional protections, legal rights and social recognition to couples who have for too long been denied them.