The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Wednesday to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act will unsettle many Americans.
The act defined marriage as between a man and a woman, a definition that has endured through the eons, sustained by cultural traditions and religious teachings.
Many will view the ruling as an assault on traditional values.
But the decision can be seen as a triumph for states' rights and individual liberty. The court did not legalize same-sex marriage across the land. States will decide such matters. The finding does prohibit the federal government from defining marriage for states.
It's a difficult issue, one that involves faith, fairness and social standards.
But the Defense of Marriage Act did result in unequal treatment of citizens based on their choice of partners.
Consider the circumstances that precipitated the case:
A New York woman, Edith Windsor, married her female partner in Canada. When her partner of more than 40 years died in 2009, she left her estate to Windsor.
New York law recognized the marriage, but because the U.S. government did not, Windsor has to pay a federal estate tax of more than $360,000 - an amount she would not have paid had she been married to a man.
The court ruling noted that "when the Constitution was adopted the common understanding was that the domestic relations of husband and wife and parent and child were matters reserved to the states."
The Defense of Marriage Act rejected "this long-established precept."
The court found the federal law invalid because it served to "disparage and to injure" individuals, "whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity."
The court, on technical grounds, also cleared a legal path for same-sex marriage in California.
The decisions Wednesday do not affect the 29 states, including Florida, that have adopted constitutional amendments limiting marriage to a man and a woman.
But in those states that do recognize same-sex marriages, the ruling will entitle partners to Social Security survivor benefits, access to federal family and medical leave, and other such benefits.
Society's attitudes has changed dramatically in the 17 years since Congress adopted the Defense of Marriage Act.
In 1996, as The Washington Post points out, same-sex marriage "was not legal anywhere in the world." Now 12 states and the District of Columbia sanction same-sex marriage.
A Fox News poll earlier this year found 49 percent of respondents favored same-sex marriage while 46 percent were opposed. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in April found 53 percent in favor.
Younger Americans, including many conservative Republicans, are inclined to see this as a personal issue that should be beyond Washington's dictates.
Many older Americans are understandably disturbed by what they see as an erosion of social standards.
In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said that proponents of traditional marriage were being unfairly depicted as bigots. He is correct.
The majority of Americans who oppose same-sex marriage do so on religious or moral grounds - not because of prejudice or hatred.
But one can respect, even share, those beliefs and still acknowledge the court has a responsibility to ensure the equal protection of the law to all citizens and find the ruling appropriate and just.