It's not exactly clear how many gay, married couples there are in America and Minnesota.

Last month, the U.S. Census bureau reported that some 131,700 same-sex couples checked the "husband" or "wife" boxes on the form. That figure was later adjusted to 100,000 after it was discovered that coding errors resulted in an exaggerated count.

In Minnesota, the first count identified 4,325 same-sex, married couples, and the adjustment brought that number down to about 1,300. And even those numbers may not be correct.

Some couples who married legally in another state chose not to list their status because it is not legally recognized in Minnesota.

Despite the lack of reliable statistics, most Americans' family and social experiences confirm that the numbers are indeed rising. And as the number of gay couples has risen, so have levels of tolerance and acceptance.

That long-overdue cultural change is most apparent in the six states -- and the District of Columbia -- that have legalized gay marriage.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military has dropped its onerous "don't ask, don't tell'' policy. And polls show that more and more Americans favor equal rights for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.

Given those welcome developments, it's disturbing that some Catholic Church leaders and the state of Minnesota are moving in the other direction.

In a recent letter, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, criticized the Obama administration for no longer defending the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act in court.

The administration believes that the law, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, is unconstitutional.

Dolan said that the federal position could "precipitate a national conflict between church and state of enormous proportions.''

Some Catholic leaders, both locally and nationally, are actively campaigning against gay marriage; they consider it a direct assault on church teaching that defines marriage as only between heterosexuals.

Framing gay marriage as a civil right, they say, can cause discrimination against Catholic believers.

But church doctrine and federal laws are two separate considerations. In a country with free religion and speech, any religious group can adopt its own rules. It cannot, however, impose those rules on civil society.

And though some church leaders hold antigay views, there is significant dissent even among their own parishioners. According to Catholics for Marriage Equality MN, a recent poll of local Catholics showed that a majority favored equal marriage rights.

Minnesotans are about to engage in a statewide debate on the issue in the run-up to a November 2012 vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. We would have preferred that this discriminatory proposal had never made it to the ballot.

It's wrong to enshrine denial of basic human rights in state law, and hopefully the discussion in the next 12 months will make that clear.

We also hope that the Catholic leaders' "national conflict'' predictions are overstated. Again, churches can decide whom they will or will not marry.

But under the laws that apply to everyone, GLBT couples deserve the same rights as every other American.

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