'Marriage," the U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 40 years ago, "is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival." And yet that right has been routinely denied to American men and women based on their sexual orientation. Government, which at its best acts to protect and extend the rights of its citizens, instead has long stood as an impediment to gay men and lesbians who just want to marry the one they love.
When it acted in 1967, the court banished laws that forbade interracial marriage and legalized the union of Mildred Loving, a black woman, and her white husband. In that same noble tradition, California's high court on Thursday ended the state's ban on marriages between couples of the same sex. Marriage, the court ruled, is "one of the fundamental rights embodied in the California Constitution" and may not be sublimated to bigotry or habit.
With its elaborate, careful ruling, the court cut neatly through the argument that gay and lesbian couples already enjoy the equal protection required by the state Constitution through civil unions that carry virtually the same rights. The very creation of a separate-but-nearly-equal category draws a distinction between marriage and civil unions, implying a lesser status for the latter, Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote. Preserving marriage as an exclusive category, he wrote, "is likely to cast doubt on whether the official family relationship of same-sex couples enjoys dignity equal to that of opposite-sex couples."
Far from evincing judicial activism, the ruling titled simply "In re Marriage Cases" acknowledged both legal and home truths. Tradition often stands as an obstacle to eliminating discriminatory institutions. But the court recognized that rights must supersede customs, that just because marriage traditionally has been defined as a union between a man and a woman, it cannot be denied to same-sex couples by "tradition alone."
Those offended by gay marriage already are working for a measure that would let California voters consider a constitutional amendment to ban it -- and, in the process, overturn this ruling. The measure is planned for the November ballot. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he would oppose a ban, and his leadership on this matter is warmly welcomed. Public opinion has changed in this state since Proposition 22 prohibited same-sex marriage in 2000, and it continues to evolve toward acceptance of gay and lesbian rights. Thursday's ruling is another step in that march toward equality; voters would do well to revel in this historic moment and let this decision stand.