The nation's highest court has put the debate on same-sex marriage in a whole new light.
A day after the U.S. Supreme Court issued two major rulings on same-sex marriage, local legislators were speculating about when and whether the General Assembly will resume debate on the issue.
State legislatures are exactly where this issue should be addressed, the people's elected representatives deciding how to resolve the issue rather than unelected judges.
Unfortunately, the high court sent a mixed message on the subject. It first found the now-stricken federal Defense of Marriage Act to be constitutionally defective on federalism grounds because it violated state prerogatives. But it followed with the blunderbuss conclusion that those who, for whatever reason, do not agree with same-sex marriage are hopeless bigots motivated by the basest of instincts.
Ironically, the high court's decision may well encourage some state legislatures to avoid this tough issue and wait for a judicial order legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states.
That's what happened in the early 1970s when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide. The Roe vs. Wade decision produced decades of political strife by denying state legislatures the opportunity to come up with a democratic solution. But it also exempted nervous legislators from casting meaningful, but politically difficult, votes.
Writing for the court's 5-4 majority, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy foreshadowed a similarly sweeping court ruling on gay marriage when he concluded that supporters of traditional marriage are irrational thinkers motivated solely by ignorance and malice toward homosexuals. Such invidious discrimination, the court ruled, violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
It was a stunning denunciation of those who hold a view of marriage that existed for all of human history until 15 to 20 years ago. Unfortunately, the court's analysis expands the debate beyond same-sex marriage to other marriage options as well as well to freedom of religion.
The court has essentially stated that heterosexuals and homosexuals both have a constitutional right to marry, that their unions with members of the opposite sex or the same sex are preferences that cannot be denied expression in matrimony. But homosexuals are not the only subset of society with non-traditional sexual preferences.
What about those, like a few Mormons, who desire multiple wives as an expression of their religious faith? Why shouldn't bisexuals be permitted to exercise their constitutional right to take a spouse of each sex?
Marriage traditionally has been a matter of state legislative policy; the word isn't even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. And now that it's entered the realm of constitutional law, it could be a whole new ball game.
So, too, with churches that adhere to the concept of traditional marriage. Leaders of the Catholic Church were apoplectic over what they view as the high court's assault on a God-blessed union of a man and woman; President Obama sought to calm them by announcing that he has no intention of forcing churches to conduct same-sex marriages.
But some supporters of same-sex marriage may well ask why Obama should give churches a pass when they are motivated solely by irrational prejudice. Indeed, that's already occurring. The state of New Jersey recently found that a Methodist Church engaged in public accommodation discrimination when it denied a same-sex couple the right to rent one of its facilities to conduct a civil union ceremony.
"A Christian organization has a constitutional right to use their facilities in a way that is consistent with their beliefs," said a lawyer representing the church.
Well, no, it doesn't, at least not in New Jersey and maybe not anywhere else someday.
The Catholic Church in Illinois thought it could stay in the adoption business through Catholic Social Services because its faith required the agency to place adoptive children in homes with a husband and a wife, not in homes of same-sex couples. The church soon found out otherwise.
Those who think these scenarios a stretch might be reminded that, just 20 years ago, it would have appeared foolish to predict same-sex marriage would soon become a reality. It would have been regarded as even more absurd to predict that the U.S. Supreme Court majority would find that opposition to same-sex marriage is morally and legally indefensible.