The U.S. Supreme Court's decision last week to hear two cases concerning the constitutionality of same-sex marriage could not have come at a time more ripe for consideration. The court lags behind the nation only half a step, with Americans growing ever more used to the idea.
It is not only public opinion polls that indicate this. On Nov. 6, three states -- Maine, Maryland and Washington -- approved gay marriage at the polls and one other, Minnesota, rejected a proposal that would have limited marriage to heterosexual couples.
Those watershed outcomes now put the Supreme Court's conservative justices on the defensive. In the political realm, the conservative complaint for well over 10 years has been one of activist judges or liberal politicians putting themselves above the democratic process and forcing gay marriage upon the citizenry. Indeed, the half dozen states that allow gay marriage did so through courts or legislators, not through referendums. Before November, gay marriage had been put to a vote of the people 32 times and had lost 32 times.
If the Supreme Court had heard the cases it has chosen to review just six months ago, the deliberations would have been overshadowed by a sense that gay marriage is at odds with the feelings of the American people.
While three states are not the whole nation, clearly the feelings of America are in flux. And as more Americans see the joy of personal freedom at work in places such as Washington state this past weekend, the less threatening the idea seems.
The court will hear two cases -- one from California that seeks to overturn a referendum that prohibited gay marriage and another from New York that challenges the constitutionality of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act and its denial of benefits to legally married gay partners.
Some parts of the country may never be comfortable with the idea of gay marriage -- and socially conservative Pennsylvania may be among them. Likewise, some justices are unlikely to be sympathetic, knowing that gay marriage would have been considered unthinkable to the Founding Fathers. But the libertarian streak of conservatism has its champion on the court in Justice Anthony Kennedy, who may turn out to be the swing vote.
History will be made or perhaps just delayed, because social change is rarely stoppable.