A federal judge struck down Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage Thursday, positioning the Old Dominion in line to potentially join 17 states and the District of Columbia in allowing gay couples to legally wed.
The ruling also sets in motion a possible U.S. Supreme Court decision on the matter – a finale many feel is fast approaching in the dramatic unfolding of the same-sex marriage debate. Federal judges have similarly overturned gay marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma in cases that could also wind up before the nation’s highest court.
U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen – a President Obama appointee – found that Virginia’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, enacted by voters in 2006, violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. She issued a stay on her ruling pending an appeal, meaning gay couples cannot get married in the state until a higher court makes its decision.
“Our Constitution declares that ‘all men’ are created equal. Surely this means all of us,” wrote Allen in her opinion. “While ever-vigilant for the wisdom that can come from the voices of our voting public, our courts have never long tolerated the perpetuation of laws rooted in unlawful prejudice.”
The case was filed on behalf of two same-sex couples from Norfolk and Chesterfield County. Newly elected Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring made waves last month when he declined to defend the ban in federal court. Attorneys general in Pennsylvania and Nevada have likewise refused to argue on behalf of their states’ marriage laws.
On Friday, the plaintiffs hailed Judge Allen’s decision.
“The saying here is, ‘Virginia is for lovers.’ And truly, we are experiencing that in a way that we never have before,” said Carol Schall, who in 2008 married her partner of 30 years, Mary Townley, in California. They are raising a teenage daughter together.
Adding significance to Thursday’s ruling is Virginia’s history in the traditional marriage debate. A landmark case originated there nearly 50 years ago, Loving v. Virginia, which ultimately led to the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate all laws prohibiting interracial marriages.
Today, gay rights advocates are hoping for a similar conclusion.