CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Slowly and painfully, human rights keep advancing in America -- usually opposed by conservatives, always pushed by progressive liberals. Thank heaven, the latter keep winning.
A century ago, the battle was over women's right to vote and use birth control. A half-century ago, it focused on equality for blacks and a "safety net" for the poor. Today, a major struggle is over acceptance of gays.
Over the years, right-wing politicians and fundamentalists did their utmost to stigmatize and ostracize -- even criminalize -- homosexuals. But they lost, time after time, and now America is nearing complete gay equality.
A decade ago, America's highest court wiped out remaining state "sodomy" laws that mandated prison sentences for gay sex.
This year, in June, moderate justices of the U.S. Supreme Court undercut the conservative-passed Defense of Marriage Act that had denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that "DOMA writes inequality into the entire U.S. Code." He said it "demeans" same-sex couples.
Now, because DOMA was toppled, the Obama administration has ruled that legally married gay couples may file joint income tax returns and gain all other federal benefits of matrimony. Further, those couples may request refunds of excess tax they paid in past years before they were eligible for lower rates for married pairs.
So far, 13 states and the District of Columbia allow gay wedlock. The new IRS ruling allows joint federal filing by all same-sex couples married in those states, even if they live in 37 states that still refuse to recognize gay marriage.
Sadly, West Virginia remains among conservative states banning equal marriage. Back in 2000, the Legislature passed the state's Defense of Marriage Act that allows only male-female weddings -- and refuses to recognize same-sex ones performed elsewhere. Ever since, fundamentalists and some Republicans have clamored to change the state constitution to include this ban.
The new IRS ruling creates a puzzle, as follows: Most heterosexual couples prepare a joint federal tax return, then file a rubber-stamp version to pay West Virginia's state income tax. Now, will same-sex West Virginia couples file joint federal returns, but be forced to file two individual state returns? If so, this unfairness could be challenged in court.
After the IRS ruled that gay couples may file joint returns, columnist Leonard Pitts wisely noted:
"Once again, the hidebound elements in this country will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the present. Once again, change will come. Once again -- as was the case with segregation, women's rights, workers' rights -- that change will be something that is imposed by the many upon the obstinate few."
He added that "if those hidebound elements truly require dragging, kicking and screaming, last week's IRS ruling suggests that the rest of the country stands ready to accommodate them."