Editorial: Slow and sudden, the Supreme Court makes same-sex history

History, like love, can feel at once cumulative and sudden. That’s how it was Monday, as the U.S. Supreme Court allowed same-sex marriage to become legal in most of the United States.

Legal scholars were stunned at the court’s decision not to review any of the many appeals that could have finally clarified the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. Surely, they predicted, some wing of the court would want to slow down or affirm the national momentum toward marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples.

Instead, the court stepped back in a history-making act of inaction. The justices let stand lower court rulings allowing same-sex marriage in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. In so doing, they not only affirmed the right to marriage equality in those states, but effectively extended it to six others.

Because they fall within the same federal appeals circuits, Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming also will be subject to the jurisprudence behind those lower court rulings.

So, overnight, the number of states where same-sex marriage is now or soon-to-be legal went from 19 plus the District of Columbia to 30 and counting.

That’s sudden. The 30 states’ combined population is about 165 million, according to the most recent census figures – a solid majority compared to the 151 million people residing in non-same-sex marriage states.

The high court’s move – or non-move – meant that, at least for now, same-sex marriage laws in this country will remain a frustrating and unfortunate patchwork. But it also underscored the growing national consensus that marriage equality should be a fundamental right.

Every one of those lower court rulings that the justices ignored on Monday affirmed the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. That may have been why the high court kept its counsel: Last month, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg hinted that until some conservative circuit insisted that it was constitutional to ban same-sex marriage, there would be no “urgency” for the Supreme Court to act.

Some court in the South or Midwest may still make that assertion. But, cumulatively speaking, it becomes less likely with every passing day.

Only 10 years ago, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 2-to-1 ratio. Today, according to Pew Research, 52 percent of Americans believe gay and lesbian couples should have the right to marry.

“If you had told me a decade ago that I would live to see gay couples marrying in Utah, I would have said that was preposterous,” marveled law professor Lawrence C. Levine of the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law.

“And yet, here we are.”

That progress was the real news out of the Supreme Court on Monday. How far we have come, and how swiftly we have evolved.

To experience such sudden, cumulative progress in a lifetime is, in fact, a marvel, be it in history or in love.

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