Last week's California Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage is being hailed by supporters of gay rights while defenders of "traditional marriage" howl that the justices have overturned the will of the people. It is a notable ruling because California is only the second state in the country to legalize gay marriage, and because it is the nation's most populous state and long a leader in social and cultural change.

Last week's California Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage is being hailed by supporters of gay rights while defenders of "traditional marriage" howl that the justices have overturned the will of the people. It is a notable ruling because California is only the second state in the country to legalize gay marriage, and because it is the nation's most populous state and long a leader in social and cultural change.

The ruling will have little effect in Oregon, where voters amended the state Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman and the Legislature later enacted domestic partnership legislation to grant same-sex couples many of the legal benefits of marriage.

The California decision represents not so much a radical departure from the past as one more step toward society's eventual acceptance of same-sex couples as deserving of the same protections heterosexual couples enjoy.

There will be setbacks along that road, the first of which may come as early as November, when opponents of gay marriage hope to place a constitutional amendment on the California ballot to effectively overturn the high court ruling. But the journey will continue.

Gradually, Americans are coming to realize that a person's sexual orientation is not a threat to those who do not share it. Little by little, the fundamental American values of fairness and equality are overcoming fear and mistrust.

Those who insist that the California ruling amounts to "tyranny" by the justices because it overturns a voter-passed statute misunderstand the role of the courts in the American system of government.

If the voters had absolute power, a majority of them could decide to discriminate against any smaller group of people for any reason whatsoever — say, by passing a law that all people with blond hair and blue eyes should be locked up. In America, of course, the courts would promptly overturn such a law because it deprived a minority of people of the constitutional rights guaranteed to everyone. That's what the courts are supposed to do.

It is interesting to note that three of the four California justices voting in the majority were appointed by Republican governors. Perhaps they embrace the traditional conservative principle that government should not restrict individual liberty.