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Decision extending marriage rights to same-sex couples is a win for equality

In the end, the question about same-sex marriage came down to two core issues: fairness and the Constitution. As Justice Anthony Kennedy observed regarding the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on the issue Friday, “The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of a person” and “under the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.” You can’t get clearer than that.

It was the right decision and an all-but-inevitable one, given society’s rapidly evolving understanding of sexual orientation on levels both social and personal. The close decision is understandable. Sections of the country remain unalterably opposed to same-sex marriage, interpreting it as an assault on their core beliefs.

Yet, the question was never whether same-sex couples had a constitutional right to a church wedding, only if the levers of governmental power could be constitutionally employed to deny basic legal and social rights to a set of Americans for no reason other than the sexual orientation with which they were born. It took a long time for millions of Americans to understand that to that question, there was a clear answer: No.

If the change in acceptance seems sudden, its roots reach back decades, to the moment that gays and lesbians decided that they were unwilling to live any longer in the closet. With that, straight Americans were forced to accept that, instead of being an unwanted “other,” gays and lesbians were their friends, neighbors and relatives.

That’s what helped alter the equation. It’s difficult to support hurtful and prejudicial discrimination against people you like and admire.

That started a process that led to change, especially among younger Americans who fail to understand what the fuss was ever about. Once society changed, the court was sure to follow. Two years ago, it invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act. Friday’s ruling went further, barring states from prohibiting same-sex marriages.

To be sure, there will be fallout. It is uncertain how conservative states will respond and, even beyond that, complications will ensue. For example, the store Hobby Lobby recently won a Supreme Court case affirming its right not to provide birth control in its employee health insurance policies. Will it be required to provide family insurance now for same-sex couples? The courts will continue to be busy with the ripple effects of this decision.

But it was the right decision. Churches can sanctify these unions or not, as they choose. But as a matter of public policy, the day of officially sanctioned governmental discrimination is over. That’s worth celebrating.