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Editorial: Right decision on gay marriage is equality

Inside and outside the U.S. Supreme Court this week, we heard arguments for and against gay marriage, which most Americans support. But it will be at least two months before we know where the highest court in the land falls on the question. We hope it opts for full marriage equality.

Inside the chambers, lawyers argued two landmark cases. Outside, thousands of gay marriage supporters and opponents held signs and rallies, showing the strength of the passion people feel for this issue nine years after Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to make gay marriage legal.

The first case, heard by the justices Tuesday, revolved around a legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages that essentially invalidated the legal marriages of thousands of California couples — and prevented thousands more who planned to marry from doing so. Proposition 8 overturned a California State Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage.

On Wednesday, the court heard the arguments regarding the Defense of Marriage Act, widely known as DOMA, a bill signed into law in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton, limiting the legal definition of marriage to the union of a man and a woman. DOMA means gay marriages are not recognized by the federal government, which means gay couples married in the nine states that have legalized gay marriage do not enjoy any of the hundreds of federal benefits of marriage, such as pension or Social Security earnings, that heterosexual couples do.

Given Massachusetts’ key role in the country’s debate over gay marriage, Attorney General Martha Coakley was on hand for Wednesday’s arguments.

Regarding the Proposition 8 arguments, reading the tea leaves of the questions posed by the justices, it appears the court may be viewing any ruling it makes as a potentially sweeping one that would affect not only California, but all states — and the court seems reluctant to take such a step. Indeed there was some suggestion, amid the questions the justices asked lawyers, that the court feels that particular case shouldn’t have been allowed onto the court’s docket in the first place.

Their grappling with DOMA may be harder to dismiss, and any Supreme Court ruling on the law would indeed have sweeping ramifications. If the court overturns DOMA, that means the thousands of gay married couples suddenly have marriage equality — and it would certainly give new energy to gay marriage efforts in the other states.

Some say the courts should stay out of social issues like gay marriage, and let the citizens of a democracy decide after vigorous public discourse.

By that measure, there are indications that the tide indeed has turned. Public support for gay marriage is said to be at an all time high, particularly among those of traditional marrying age. About 81 percent of people from age 18 to 29 support gay marriage.

Once such a large cultural shift has been made, it’s only a matter of time before something that was once banned is accepted.

But we contend that gay marriage is a civil rights issue, and just as courts many decades ago did not leave the question of interracial marriage to the citizens to hash out, the same should take place here. It is not wise in a democracy for the majority to decide on the rights of a minority. It leaves room for bigotry and fear to hold sway.

Gay marriage is a matter for the highest court in the land to decide. Both Clinton — who has said he regrets his decision to sign DOMA into law — and President Barack Obamba belive DOMA is unconsitutional. The Obama administration, in fact, made a decision some time ago to drop any defense of DOMA.

In his inaugural address in Janurary, Obama plainly stated that the journey toward equality “is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like everybody else under the law.”

We will soon see if that view is shared by the justices of the United States Supreme Court.

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