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A step toward equality; Court ruling that ‘gay' isn't defamatory shows a welcome evolution on the issue

It seems a very long time ago that Anita Bryant launched her vicious assault on the gay rights movement. She paid a heavy financial and emotional price for her support of discrimination against gays and, perhaps, may even have helped hasten the day when calling someone gay was not an insult.

That day has arrived. In Albany last week, a mid-level state appeals court ruled that it is no longer slander in New York to falsely call someone gay. You might just as well falsely call him tall or short or black or white. It's a description now, not a cutting and damaging insult.

Things have changed. It has now been legally acknowledged by a court with oversight authority that being gay is uncontroversial. It will be interesting to see how that judicial shrug of the shoulders plays out in the U.S. Supreme Court when and if justices consider the preposterously named Defense of Marriage Act, which a federal appeals court ruled unconstitutional last week.

The question: If gay is now mainstream, how can discrimination against gays and lesbians be constitutional? In truth, the fundamental issues predate the New York ruling given that marriage is a state, not a federal matter, and that, even if it were a federal concern, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution provides for equal protection of the laws. The New York court ruling merely underscores the fact that this misbegotten federal statute represents an shameful attempt to enshrine bigotry into law.

Defenders of the Defense of Marriage Act don't see it that way, of course. They think it is appropriate for the law to reserve this right to heterosexuals only. Many of these people are religious fundamentalists, a group with a track record of being on the wrong side of civil rights issues. They defended slavery as biblically sanctioned. They supported Jim Crow laws and sought to prevent interracial marriage. Wrong, wrong and wrong. And, now, wrong again.

It is important to note that no church was ever being asked to perform marriages to which it objected, or being sanctioned in any way for refusing to marry gays and lesbians. When the day comes that this law has been consigned to the scrap heap — and that day will come — churches will continue to remain free to apply their own doctrines on marriage.

But, as a civil matter, there can be no rationale but intolerable and unconstitutional prejudice for maintaining a law that deprives gays and lesbians of the legal and social benefits of marriage.

Indeed, not only the 14th Amendment but the First Amendment's separation of church and state clearly underscores that fact that what religions may choose to do does not automatically transfer to the secular world. Churches can discriminate if they choose, but governments cannot, morally or constitutionally.