Court strikes down Va. gay marriage ban

A federal court struck down Virginia’s gay marriage ban Thursday night, the latest in a series of decisions invalidating state laws against same-sex marriage.

The decision also carried the symbolism of bringing gay marriage to the birthplace of Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court case striking down interracial marriage bans.

Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled the amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage violated the U.S. Constitution’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses.

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“Gay and lesbian individuals share the same capacity as heterosexual individuals to form, preserve and celebrate loving, intimate and lasting relationships,” Wright Allen wrote. “Such relationships are created through the exercise of sacred, personal choices — choices, like the choices made by every other citizen, that must be free from unwarranted government interference.”

The decision also used the Loving case as an example of why tradition, one of the defenses put forth by supporters of the ban, was not enough to sustain it.

“Tradition alone cannot justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry any more than it could justify Virginia's ban on interracial marriage,” the decision states.

The case illustrates how politics in Virginia have shifted.

The previous attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican who lost a bid for governor last year, supported the ban. But when Mark Herring, a Democrat narrowly elected in November, took office last month, he declared he would not defend the ban in court.

The amendment outlawing gay marriage in the commonwealth passed in 2006 with 57 percent of the vote. 

“This decision shows that Virginia, like America, is coming to a better place in recognizing that every Virginian deserves to be treated equally and fairly,” Herring said in a statement Thursday night. 

Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin also framed the ruling as another step forward.

“Yet another court has upheld the fundamental idea that gay and lesbian Americans are entitled to full equality under the law,” he said in a statement. “Nearly 50 years ago, another Virginia case struck down bans on interracial marriage across the country, and now this commonwealth brings renewed hope for an end to irrational barriers to marriage for loving and committed couples across the country.”

A federal court in Utah in December, and one in Oklahoma in January, struck down gay marriage bans in those states. The Virginia case joins them in a string of rulings since the Supreme Court invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June.

While the Supreme Court purposefully did not rule on the constitutionality of state gay marriage laws, the Utah, Oklahoma, and Virginia cases have all cited the dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia, a leading conservative, warning the logic of the majority’s decision opened the door for the striking down of state bans.

Wright Allen stayed the effect of her decision until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and perhaps ultimately the Supreme Court, hear an appeal, so gay couples will not be able to marry in Virginia, yet.