Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring – the commonwealth's first attorney general elected from Loudoun County – will fight to allow same-sex marriage in Virginia, Mr. Herring announced at a press conference in Richmond this morning.
Elected this past November and after a weeks-long recount, Mr. Herring made gay marriage a key platform issue throughout his campaign against conservative and anti-gay marriage candidate Mark Obenshain.
"My decision today is not based on my policy preference for marriage rights for same-sex couples," Mr. Herring said at the press conference. "It is based on my thorough analysis of the applicable law and the constitutional questions raised by this case."
"As Virginians, we have much to be proud of," he said. "But too many times in our history our citizens have had to lead the way on civil rights, while their leaders stood against them. This will not be another instance. It's time for the commonwealth to be on the right side of history and the right side of the law."
Mr. Herring told the Times-Mirror last year he believes the gay marriage ban in Virginia goes against the U.S. Constitution, despite a 2006 vote supporting the gay marriage restriction in the commonwealth's constitution.
Similar to President Barack Obama, Mr. Herring said he's “evolved” on the issue.
The Democratic attorney general's announcement jolted and vexed the state's Republican leaders this morning.
Pat Mullins, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said Mr. Herring should “resign” if “he doesn't want to do his job.”
"By running for the office, Mark Herring asked for the challenge of defending Virginia's Constitution and all it contains,” Mr. Mullins said in a prepared statement. “The subject matter is irrelevant. Virginia's constitutional amendment and its challenges were well known when Mark Herring spent millions of dollars fighting to become Virginia's attorney. Attorneys don't get to choose whether or not they will defend their clients. Indeed, lawyers have a duty to select their clients carefully, because they are ethically bound to represent the claims of their clients, good or bad."
Mr. Obenshain commented, “It is deeply inappropriate for the attorney general to use state resources to actively oppose a duly ratified constitutional amendment. Through this decision, Herring is effectively seeking to unilaterally reverse the actions of the General Assembly in adopting the Amendment, and the people of Virginia in ratifying it."
Virginia voters approved the same-sex marriage ban 57 percent to 43 percent in 2006, but a Quinnipiac University poll in July found that 50 percent of registered Virginia voters support same-sex marriage, while 43 percent oppose it, according to the Associated Press.
Two same-sex couples in Norfolk have challenged Virginia's same-sex marriage ban in federal court. Mr. Herring is expected to file a legal brief today to join the couples in the case, rather than siding with the commonwealth's prohibition.
The attorney general today repeatedly affirmed that he believes Virginia's gay-marriage ban goes against the U.S. Constitution, and that state law cannot trump federal law. It is a state attorney general's duty, Mr. Herring said, to uphold the U.S. Constitution every bit as much as state law.
Mr. Herring concluded, "I will fight to end this oppressive ban, and to guarantee the constitutional freedom for loving couples to marry in Virginia."
This story has been updated from an earlier version.