The Constitution was written to protect the rights of the American people. The main charge of the Supreme Court (and all courts) is to uphold the Constitution and protect the citizens for which it was written. Throughout the history of our country, this document has been changed to ensure that every citizen has the full rights and protections as everyone else. In short, it provides for equality for all. Whenever an inequity among citizens has occurred, it has usually been rectified by the Constitution.
Our country has a long history of giving rights to everyone--it's the foundation for its creation. We also have a long history of excluding various groups from having full rights and equality. Whenever an inalienable right has been granted to the people, it has usually come from the Courts. This is mostly because the politicians in the Legislatures and Congress are afraid (for reasons we won’t discuss here) to stand up and make these policy changes the way our Founding Fathers wanted them to be set up.
Luckily for us, our Founding Fathers also saw the necessity to have a balance in government—a check on the three prongs of government by each other. This way, if one arm of government fails to protect its’ citizens, another one can jump right to ensure protection and equality for all.
Rome was not built in a day. And neither will the fight for true equality.
It may be uncomfortable for some to have the Constitutional fights in the court system rather than on the floor of Legislative bodies. But remember, the gay equality/marriage debate isn’t the first time this has happened.
Let’s look at the most forefront fights for equality so far: Civil rights for African-Americans.
While physical slavery was ended in 1865 by the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, full and total equality for blacks did not occur until 100 years later with a slew of SCOTUS cases including, Loving v. Virginia and Brown v. Board of Education, etc. In a nutshell, the rulings in these cases paved the way for full equality for all Americans—no matter his or her skin color.
The same can be applied to the push for full equality in the gay rights movement today. In Loving v. Virginia, a white man married a black woman. This was deemed a crime in their state of Virginia and the two were charged. In Brown v. Board of Education it is shown that separate but equal facilities are unconstitutional.
Many in the gay rights movement claim that civil unions and other guises of marriage are the equivalent of separate but unequal status. In this recent New York Times editorial, the case is made that civil unions, although a step in the right direction, are an inadequate substitute for marriage.
I do not discount the validity of the relationships of any of the gay couples I know; I know that they are committed to each other 100% and treat their relationship like a marriage, even though they are not legally wed. What I find annoying is the fact that, just because if I want to marry a man, I am able to go to the clerk’s office and sign a piece of paper granting the same rights and protections couples around the world share. For gay couples, it is a bit more difficult. They have to go to an attorney to create these papers. Although it’s a relatively minor step, it’s a step that I do not have to take. (And even with these papers, there is no guarantee these rights will be upheld by an attending doctor or probate judge).
Gay marriage is the most important ideal for the gay equality movement. For better or for worse, marriage is a social status and denying gay people this fundamental right is more than "just a piece of paper." (Hat tip: Adam). Even gay couples in long-term, committed relationships have their own kind of "marriage" to solidify this fact. If gay marriage is not so important to all gay couples, then why propose? Why hold a ceremony? Why wear rings? It is symbolic and an ideal they strive for daily. In short, it's equal.
The legal system is the only way to achieve full equality for all. Only with everyone having the right to marry who they want, no matter their gender, will these rights be full and true and unable to be stripped of meaning. The legislative branch is not going to step up and the executive branch can only do so much. It’s up to the Courts to decide this as they have a history of protecting the rights of all.
"Equal justice is not just a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building. It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society...It is fundamental that justice should be the same..." Justice Lewis Powell, Jr., Former Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court