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    Virginia pivotal on same-sex marriage

    Political shift may build momentum

    RICHMOND — Almost overnight, Virginia has emerged as a critical state in the nationwide fight to grant same-sex couples the right to wed.

    This state was once perceived as unfriendly and even bordering on hostile to gay rights. That has changed after a seismic political shift in the top three elected offices, from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats who support gay marriage.

    Two federal lawsuits challenging the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage are moving forward, and a hearing on one of the cases is scheduled Jan. 30.

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    With the recent court gains in Utah and Oklahoma, gay rights advocates are heartened by the new mood in Virginia.

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    Symbolically as well, they say, the challenges of the state’s gay marriage ban resonate because of the founding state’s history of erecting a wall between church and state and a landmark US Supreme Court decision involving a Virginia couple and a past taboo: interracial marriage.

    ‘‘Virginia is one of several important battlefronts where we have the opportunity now to build on the momentum, embrace the public’s movement in favor of the freedom to marry, and end the discrimination,’’ said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of New York-based Freedom to Marry, which seeks to have same-sex marriage bans struck down nationwide.

    With the election of Governor Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring, the state made a hairpin turn away from the socially conservative officeholders they succeeded, particularly Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, an activist on social issues.

    Herring had campaigned, in part, on marriage equality, and McAuliffe issued an executive order on inauguration day prohibiting discrimination against state employees who are gay.

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    The separate lawsuits intended to topple the constitutional ban on gay marriage have been filed in federal courts, which are typically speedy in Virginia.