SPAIN'S DECISION last week to become the third nation to legalize gay marriage caught lots of folks off-guard.
The Netherlands leading the way four years ago was no surprise because of that country's broadminded tradition. There was little shock when Belgium followed. Ditto Canada, which is poised next month to expand nationwide gay marriage rights already accorded by seven provinces.
But in heavily Catholic Spain, government policy has historically reflected the views of the church, which adamantly opposes any change in the traditional concept of marriage.
Thus, the milestone passed was all the more impressive and another reminder of the social revolution by fits and starts that seems destined to someday provide equal rights to gays and lesbians all over the world.
Religious conservatives in the United States and elsewhere can block progress for awhile, and even reverse course occasionally. But the momentum is moving in the other direction, as fairness and tolerance dictate it should.
Progress is often hard to see close-up. Over the past decade, as the controversy over gay marriage has roiled this country, most states have enacted legislation or amended their constitutions to preclude same-sex unions.
Yet during the same period, relationship rights for gays have been liberalized as never before.
Massachusetts issues marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Two states, Vermont and California, allow civil unions between gays. Three other states and the District of Columbia grant same-sex couples legal and medical rights under domestic partnership laws. (Maryland would have joined that list this year if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hadn't vetoed bills enacted by the General Assembly.) Many private companies and local government agencies throughout the country also recognize domestic partners for insurance and other purposes.
Congress may be in no mood to grant such rights to gays, but neither can it muster the votes to add a prohibition against gay marriage to the Constitution.
Meanwhile, experience makes the case for tolerance. Gay couples are marrying in Massachusetts, Canada, the Netherlands and Belgium, and becoming part of the accepted fabric of life.
In Spain, the new gay marriage law will doubtless be subject to challenge by the Catholic hierarchy. But polls suggest the church doesn't have as much influence in such matters as it once did. In a survey in May, two-thirds of Spaniards questioned said they approved of gay marriage.
"We were not the first, but I am sure we will not be the last," Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero predicted of the gay marriage legislation. "After us will come many other countries, driven ... by two unstoppable forces: freedom and equality."
Given its oft-professed endorsement of those values, the United States should follow sooner rather than later.