More than 1,300 legally married same-sex couples in Utah, where the Mormon Church is headquartered? Who would have thought it possible 10 or even five years ago? Marriage licenses issued to more than 500 gay and lesbian couples in the politically conservative state of Arkansas? This is progress well worth celebrating on this Fourth of July, reflecting a sweeping advance of freedom and justice across the United States.
After the Supreme Court struck down parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act a year ago, and left standing a lower court decision declaring California's Proposition 8 unconstitutional, it seemed as though the forward march might slow for at least a while. With only a couple of other parts of the country looking even remotely friendly toward same-sex marriage, progress appeared unlikely soon.
Instead, things heated up as never before, with judges bolstered by the DOMA decision. In the last year, there have been a stunning 23 court victories for same-sex marriage in 16 states, and no losses. Many were in states that would have been considered unlikely just a few years ago: Oklahoma, Idaho, Texas, Tennessee. This week, Kentucky joined the list. Five states were added to the ranks of those where same-sex marriage is fully recognized, bringing the total to 19 states plus Washington, D.C., representing 44% of the nation's population. In most states that had favorable rulings, the decisions are on hold pending appeal. Though some same-sex couples were wed in Utah before the ruling was stayed pending appeal, those marriages are recognized only by the federal government, not by the state of Utah. It's unclear what the fate is of the hundreds of couples who were granted marriage licenses in Arkansas before that ruling, too, was stayed.
The forward march reached the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals last week; that court upheld a lower-court ruling in the Utah case, meaning that the matter of same-sex marriage laws is poised to move to the U.S. Supreme Court for a decision on the constitutionality of marriage bans.
Though we rightly think of the Fourth of July as celebrating the birth of the United States, it more specifically marks the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, a document that, in its early paragraphs, pays poetic homage to the great ideas that underlay the founding of our country. Most Americans know at least a couple of its phrases by heart, especially the part about people being endowed "with certain unalienable rights" that include "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
But as our national history repeatedly shows us, conferring those rights is more difficult than it sounds. Valid rights conflict much of the time, which resulted this week in a regrettable decision by the Supreme Court when the religious rights of business owners clashed with women's right to health coverage that includes legal, federally approved reproductive medical treatment.
The rights of same-sex couples should be a much easier matter. As has been demonstrated over and over again, gay marriage is not in conflict with other couples' rights or with the good of society. There are complicated court cases underway about whether private wedding photographers and other small-business owners must provide services to same-sex couples. But the basic right of gays and lesbians to have their marriages recognized by state and federal governments has no effect on the rest of the population, other than to make some people uncomfortable.
For most of our country's history, homosexuals have been vilified and mocked, denied housing and jobs, to the point that most of them tried to hide their sexual orientation. Until the Supreme Court decides the issue, gay and lesbian couples in most of the nation will still be denied the ability to pursue their happiness by wedding their partners and raising families that are officially recognized as such. The high court should move quickly to consider the Utah case when it is appealed, and we hope it will reach the courageous conclusion that judges across the nation have reached — as have most Americans, according to a May Gallup poll.
The growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, though belated, is a reminder of the country's slow but continuous expansion of rights. The court victories of the last year reflect in a momentous way the spirit of the words adopted by the Founding Fathers 238 years ago today.