Appointed by President Reagan to the U.S. District Court in New Orleans, Martin Feldman is a judge known for his fidelity both to the law and to his church. He serves both on the Eastern District bench, and by appointment of Chief Justice John Roberts, on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that supervises national security wiretapping cases.

Feldman’s reputation commands respect in his certain-to-be controversial ruling that the state of Louisiana does not have to recognize marriages of its gay citizens.

The plaintiffs, four gay couples married in other states and the group Forum for Equality, have promised to appeal the judge’s ruling.

Feldman said gay marriage supporters failed to prove that the ban violates equal protection or due process provisions of the Constitution. He agreed with state attorneys who argued that states have the right to define marriage.

Feldman’s ruling reflects not only his view of the state of the law, but the will of the people of Louisiana as expressed in a 2004 election. The voters adopted, three-to-one, an amendment to the state constitution that forbids gay marriage.

It was a sweepingly written constitutional amendment that, in our view, also bans civil unions or other arrangements for gay couples. We opposed the amendment on the grounds that lawmakers should have retained the discretion to make reasonable accommodations for the growing number of gay couples in our state.

Much has changed in ten years.

Most importantly, a dramatic change in jurisprudence at the federal level has occurred. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Windsor case, requiring a high legal barrier to laws that restrict the rights of gay Americans, lower courts have frequently overturned similar bans in other states; that’s been the case with judges appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents. Feldman is in the minority of judges.

The plaintiffs in the case before Feldman did not seek the legalization of gay marriage; the plaintiffs sought Louisiana’s recognition of out-of-state marriages. Feldman decided it made more sense to rule on the larger issue, as has been done in other states.

If the law has changed, society has probably changed more. Nearly half the American people live in states that allow gay marriage. The view that gay and lesbian couples are immoral or evil is, blessedly, on the wane among Americans. The marriage question will likely be settled, ultimately, at the level of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Feldman’s decision will be appealed, but the discussion is not going to be confined to courtrooms and legal briefs.

The dispute over the legal definition of marriage strained our state a decade ago, and will again as the new ruling is debated in the court of public opinion. We hope that Louisiana people, diverse and argumentative as we may be, will approach this debate in a spirit of civility and respect for all sides of the question.