Supreme Court Ducks on Gay Marriage

Heading toward equality.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined today to review seven appeals of same-sex marriage rulings by lower courts. The practical effect is that such marriages may now proceed in Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as in the less socially liberal environs of Indiana, Oklahoma and Utah. Six other states -- Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming -- fall under the jurisdiction of the three appellate courts whose rulings now stand uncontested.

The court had previously struck down a federal law that denied benefits to same-sex married couples without affirmatively asserting that gay marriage is a constitutional right.

Given the pace, and direction, of rulings in the lower courts, where same-sex marriage proponents have been enjoying a winning streak, the Supremes' reticence suggests two inclinations: first, that the court is content to let gay marriage take root throughout the country and, second, that it wants to avoid settling the still-contentious issue in one fell swoop.

The court is on the right path, even though its unwillingness to settle the matter exacts a high price from gay Americans seeking dignity and equality under law.

The tide of legalization will not be reversed. Today's nondecision leaves a minimum of 24 states and a maximum of 30 allowing gay couples to marry. In the meantime, public support has passed the majority threshold; among the young, it is overwhelming.

A more robust consensus will take more time. The example of Brown v Board of Education is instructive. A unanimous ruling rooted as deeply in social justice and human dignity as any the court has delivered, the court's demand for equal access to public education is unequivocal on paper, yet still unrealized 60 years later.

It's possible that the Supreme Court sidestepped the same-sex marriage cases because it prefers to let gay rights gather political power of its own accord. What's most significant is that the court is clearly unwilling to obstruct a social and political advance toward equality.

--Editors: Francis Wilkinson, Mary Duenwald

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net