IN A FEDERAL court ruling echoing decisions reached elsewhere in the US, Virginia yesterday became the first state in the South to overturn a voter-approved prohibition of same-sex marriage.
US District Judge Arenda Wright Allen issued a stay of her order while it is appealed, meaning that gay couples in Virginia still will not be able to marry until the case is ultimately resolved. Both sides believe the case won’t be settled until the Supreme Court decides to hear it or one like it.
Allen’s decision makes Virginia the second state in the South to issue a ruling recognizing the legality of gay marriages.
A judge in Kentucky ruled Wednesday that the state must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. But that judge did not rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriages inside the state. Decisions similar to that of the Virginia judge have been issued in in Utah and Oklahoma federal courts.
The office of newly elected Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring took the unusual step of not defending the law because it believes the ban violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. In her ruling, Wright Allen agreed.
“The court is compelled to conclude that Virginia’s Marriage Laws unconstitutionally deny Virginia’s gay and lesbian citizens the fundamental freedom to choose to marry. Government interests in perpetuating traditions, shielding state matters from federal interference, and favoring one model of parenting over others must yield to this country’s cherished protections that ensure the exercise of the private choices of the individual citizen regarding love and family,” Wright Allen wrote.
The plaintiffs’ lead co-counsel, Theodore B. Olson, said in a statement: “Through its decision today, the court has upheld the principles of equality upon which this nation was founded.”
Wright Allen’s stay was requested by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office to avoid a situation similar to what happened in Utah after that state’s ban on gay marriages was declared unconstitutional.
More than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples were married in the days after the ruling until the U.S. Supreme Court granted the state an emergency stay, halting the weddings and creating a cloud of uncertainty for the status of the married couples. Soon after, a federal judge also declared Oklahoma’s ban unconstitutional. That ruling also is on hold while it is appealed.