'... with liberty and justice for all'
The cascade of state and federal court rulings overturning state bans on gay marriage won't eliminate it as a divisive issue any more than court rulings and laws have eliminated race as a divisive issue.
But they do further establish that people have rights under the U.S. Constitution that may not be superseded by discriminatory state laws.
In his ruling Tuesday overturning Pennsylvania's ban on gay marriage, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania cited a long history of jurisprudence finding the right to marry, and to marry the person of one's choice, to be fundamental aspects of liberty.
Gov. Tom Corbett's sound decision Wednesday not to appeal the decision, based on Judge Jones' equally sound constitutional reasoning, means that personal liberty is now Pennsylvania's law.
The U.S. Supreme Court consistently has ruled that the right to marry is pervasive. In 1888, the court found that the right to marry is fundamental to the personal liberty protected by the Constitution. Most famously, in overturning Virginia's law against interracial marriage in 1967, the court found that the right to marry "resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."
In a Missouri case in 1987, the court found that a warden could not stop two inmates from marrying, even though their liberty otherwise legally had been restricted by the state.
That long, consistent endorsement of the right to marry as a bedrock component of personal liberty made it virtually impossible for Judge Jones to rule other than as he did. The due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment are plain: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law."
The matter is, of course, a political issue and part of a broader debate about marriage, family, religion and values. There are sincere, passionate people on both sides of the issue.
But the ruling imposes no burden on anyone and causes no harm. No religion may be compelled to recognize it against its doctrine; individuals still may believe as they choose.
But it ill serves the society to enshrine discrimination in state law. Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court said as much about federal law.
Pennsylvania is the 19th state where gay marriage is legal, including the entire Northeast. Gay marriage now is legal in jurisdictions covering 43 percent of the U.S. population.
The commonwealth survives even as gay couples begin to marry.