After years of being denied the option to legally marry the partner they love, at last the dream will come true for same-sex couples in Minnesota shortly after midnight on Thursday.

In Minneapolis, Mayor R.T. Rybak will kick off the new era in the City Hall rotunda when he officiates the unions of Margaret Miles and Cathy ten Broeke, and Al Giraud and Jeff Isaacson.

As with any wedding, the occasion will be joyous for the happy couples and their friends and families. They also mark a moment in state history that finally closes one of the last bastions of legal discrimination. That’s worth celebrating, too.

It’s been a good few years and months in the struggle for gay rights. During the same year that they were allowed to marry in this and several other states, gay couples also received affirmation from the nation’s highest court. Last month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages and provide the same benefits that other married couples receive.

Yet another significant contribution to the cause came from Pope Francis this week, during a wide-ranging, unexpected news conference. While flying from Brazil to Italy, the pontiff told reporters that he has no right to “judge” gay people.

“If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized,’’ the pope said.

The shift in tone was significant, coming from the top authority in the Roman Catholic Church, although church doctrine will continue to teach that marriage means one man, one woman. If nothing else, the pope’s remarks will open the door for more meaningful discussion within the church.

While the legal decisions and talk of tolerance are important, they will not automatically change deeply ingrained attitudes and prejudice. Polls continue to show deep divides among Americans on gay marriage, with many objections based on religious teachings.

Already in some states there has been push back from vendors who oppose the practice and refuse to sell things like cakes or other wedding items to gay couples. It would not be surprising to see more efforts to repeal same-sex marriage laws or find ways around them. When other new laws struck down various forms of discrimination in the past, similar efforts occurred.

Eliminating slavery and allowing blacks to vote prompted the rise of Jim Crow laws. Brown v. Board of Education was met by refusals to integrate schools in some communities.

Yet those laws stood, the nation continues to implement them, and attitudes have shifted along the way. Anti-discrimination laws provide the foundation to change behaviors. They state plainly that the law calls for fair treatment in employment, voting, housing, education — and marriage.

However, in the process of following those laws, hearts and minds can change too. Legal requirements and the benefits they bring can help open eyes and combat bias.

Like other groundbreaking, precedent-setting civil rights laws, extending marriage to all adults is an important step in the evolution of a free, fair and truly democratic society.

Congratulations to the couples who will marry this week and be part of that evolution. And congratulations to those Minnesotans who supported a more compassionate future for their fellow citizens.


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Follow the editorial board on Twitter | FacebookPinterest | Google+