Supporters of gay rights Friday celebrated their latest courtroom victory, the overturning of Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage, as opponents condemned the decision as an infringement on states’ rights and vowed to take the issue to the Supreme Court.
Invoking Abraham Lincoln and the nation’s historic struggle against racial discrimination, a federal judge declared late Thursday that Virginia’s laws that limit marriage to a man and a woman violated the due process and equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment.
The ruling was the first to overturn one of the state amendments banning same-sex marriage that prevail throughout the South. It followed similar recent decisions by federal courts overturning marriage restrictions in Utah and Oklahoma, and by state courts in New Jersey and New Mexico.
“We have arrived upon another moment in history when We the People becomes more inclusive, and our freedom more perfect,” wrote Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen of US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, in Norfolk.
But a lawyer defending the marriage law in this case, Ken Connelly, said Friday that the ruling “interferes with the right of Virginians to determine the future of marriage in their state, and it raises serious constitutional issues.” Connelly is a staff counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group.
Gay and lesbian couples in Virginia will not be able to obtain marriage licenses immediately because Wright Allen issued a stay, pending the outcome of an expected appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond.
Still, the plaintiffs, including two gay men who seek to marry and two lesbian women who want their California marriage recognized by Virginia, were overjoyed.
“This is not only important for us as a couple, it’s even more important for us as parents,” said Mary Townley, one of the plaintiffs, on Friday. She and her partner have a 16-year-old daughter and, she said, “It means the world to her that our family will be treated like any other family.”
The ruling, which overturned a constitutional amendment adopted by Virginia voters in 2006 as well as previous laws, also said Virginia must respect same-sex marriages that were carried out legally in other states.
This week, a federal judge in Kentucky ruled that the state must honor same-sex marriages legally performed in other states, but the ruling did not address Kentucky’s own ban on such marriages.
If the appeals court upholds Thursday’s decision, the repercussions in the South, where opposition to same-sex marriage has been strongest, could be wide. Restrictive state amendments would most likely be voided in other states of the Fourth Circuit, including North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. (Maryland, the fifth circuit member, approved same-sex marriage in 2012.)
But legal experts on both sides of the issue expect this case, or others among the dozens now being argued in federal courts around the country, will be taken up by the Supreme Court, perhaps within the next year or two.
Leaving out Virginia as well as Utah and Oklahoma, where the rulings are also stayed pending appeal, same-sex marriage is now authorized in 17 states plus the District of Columbia.
The challenge to Virginia’s ban was argued by the same bipartisan team of legal stars, Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, that successfully contested California’s ban in 2010. They argued the case on behalf of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, a private national group.
When the case was first filed, Virginia’s Republican governor and attorney general strongly defended the state’s marriage laws. But Democrats won the two offices in November and the new attorney general of Virginia, Mark R. Herring, announced that his office considered the marriage ban unconstitutional and would assist the challenge.