Last week's 4-3 ruling by the California Supreme Court recognizing that gays have a constitutional right to marriage (and striking down state laws that forbid it) is a reminder of what might have been in Maryland - and of the continuing and inevitable social change that is likely to bring it about anyway.
California will soon join Massachusetts in recognizing that the exclusion of gays from the rights and privileges offered by civil marriage is an intolerable form of discrimination. How fitting that California's high court compared the situation to interracial marriage, which that state also used to prohibit - until the justices struck down that law 60 years ago.
But just as one vote made all the difference in California's historic action, Maryland's Court of Appeals found itself one vote shy of embracing the 21st century last fall. The Maryland court's 4-3 ruling upholding a 34-year-old state statute defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman was a lost opportunity to set aside a formidable social barrier to same-sex couples.
That has left the matter in the hands of the General Assembly, where prospects of legalizing gay marriage appear dim. Even adopting the interim step of civil unions faced formidable opposition in a legislative committee, where such a proposal died. Any future legislation probably won't have a fighting chance until the next election in 2010 and after a potential turnover in membership.
On Thursday, Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to sign two bills that offer same-sex couples modest relief. One would make it possible to put a same-sex partner's name on a deed without collecting recordation or transfer taxes (as married couples can); the other gives same-sex partners certain medical care-related rights, including the ability to make medical decisions for each other.
Marriage offers - by at least one estimate - more than 400 such rights. Prohibiting marriage, but cobbling together equivalent rights one by one, is not a sensible long-term solution to discrimination. California has taken a better route.