A SOCIAL REVOLUTION appears to be overtaking the nation in fits and starts that may one day result in broad acceptance of gay marriage.
Judges in Massachusetts. The mayor of Chicago. A county clerk in New Mexico. Local officials all over the country, including Maryland, trying to cope with hundreds of gay newlyweds coming home from disputed City Hall ceremonies in San Francisco. All form a mosaic of change under way in one of our most deeply held traditions.
The notion is still troubling to many, perhaps most Americans, some of whom are deeply offended on religious grounds because they believe homosexuality is a sin.
Yet, attitudes toward gays appear to be shifting so rapidly - just a few years after comedian Ellen DeGeneres took a risky step out of the closet, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy has a big following on network television - that political and legal institutions aren't likely to be far behind.
Wise community leaders will figure out how to manage the transition in ways that promote tolerance and understanding. Those who try to reverse the trend or somehow hold it back will find themselves on the wrong side of history.
President Bush has reluctantly backed the worst possible response: a constitutional amendment that would not only ban gay marriage but also roll back other legal rights for gays to maintain domestic partnerships and adopt children.
The amendment has little chance of being adopted; even many of Mr. Bush's fellow Republicans are averse to mucking up the Constitution with politically charged propositions intended to restrict American freedoms rather than expand them. But that makes his election-year ploy to appease social conservatives all the more cynical, especially when the president's own views have evolved to the point that he is open to civil unions between gay partners.
Like other divisive social questions, the legality of gay marriage will probably be finally resolved in the U.S. Supreme Court, which all but invited the question last year when it voided the nation's only remaining ban on sodomy.
What's needed in the meantime are debate and discussion of the issue at the state and local level, so each community can sort out its feelings. The change is probably too huge to be made all at once, but there are many alternatives for a period of adjustment.
For example, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed a 2002 law recognizing gay marriages legally performed elsewhere but won't direct city clerks to issue licenses to gays for New York weddings until the state approves it.
The "most fundamental institution of civilization," as Mr. Bush called marriage, has taken many forms over the eons, not all of them sacred. Until recently, it was often a loveless union cementing economic and political deals between families, tribes and nations.
Those joyful wedding shots from San Francisco - two young men holding infant twin daughters, middle-aged women formalizing a decades-old partnership - promise something better. When gay couples who provide each other support and security, and even become parents, choose to cement their commitment with society's traditional and legal rituals, the institution of marriage can only be strengthened.