As a cultural marker as well as a legal milestone, the two U.S. Supreme Court decisions this week on gay marriage attest to the fact that America is a changed nation, although the process of change is not yet complete.
Just a generation ago, even a qualified boost to gay marriage -- as the court's decisions were -- would have seemed unlikely. Certainly to the nation's founders the idea would have been preposterous. But social attitudes change while concepts anchored in the Fifth and 14th amendments of the Constitution resist all tides, including ones never dreamed of in earlier times.
It was to such sturdy pillars as due process and equal protection that Justice Anthony Kennedy tethered his opinion declaring a key part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The power to regulate marriage abides with the states, not the federal government, he said -- a view endorsed by the familiar coalition of four liberal justices.
The result is that socially conservative states can continue to restrict marriage to one man and one woman -- and in that narrow sense the fullest hopes of gay marriage's supporters are not met. That said, the impediments to gay couples receiving a host of federal benefits in the 12 states (plus now California) and the District of Columbia are struck down and the Obama administration is empowered to extend benefits through executive actions.
Cynics may think that this is about getting cash from the government, but denial of benefits for gay couples routinely available to heterosexual partners was a deliberate attempt to demean homosexuals and had the effect of humiliating tens of thousands of their children, as Justice Kennedy correctly recognized.
Indeed, no sensible reason exists why, among other things, gay couples can't easily file joint tax returns, be buried together in veterans' cemeteries or obtain government health benefits, which DOMA prohibited.
The court's second ruling, again a 5-4 decision although with strange bedfellows in the mix, left California free to resume gay nuptials when the court decided that those who appealed a judge's decision striking down an anti-gay marriage referendum had no standing after the state declined to defend it.
What the court's rulings achieve is certainly a complicated patchwork across the states on matters of marriage and benefits, but they convey a message about where the country stands and where it is going: Gay marriage is no longer a strange idea, but one that has been made respectable by the highest court in the land.
Increasingly, the idea is accepted by the American people, who were told to expect the worst but have seen the arguments against gay marriage dissolve in the light of the experience of various states. Joy, not ruin, has been the outcome. Increasingly, Americans are prepared to live and let live. In Pittsburgh, 300 people rallied Downtown to celebrate the court's decision in the company of local political leaders.
Justice Antonin Scalia's cantankerous dissent was actually the lament of a generation that knows the culture war has turned against it. More battles will take place, certainly in Pennsylvania, which is backward in everything from the Liquor Control Board on down. But on this issue conservatives battle an irony. In preaching freedom, they cannot fence off freedom for people who wish to exercise the fundamental freedom to lovingly and legally live with whom they choose.