Same-sex couples and friends of the LGBT community received a couple-hours-early Valentine's Day present Feb. 13 when a federal district judge declared Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional.
U.S. District Court Judge Arenda Wright Allen ruled same-sex couples in Virginia have been denied their rights to due process and equal protection guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Gay couples can't yet be married, however, because Ms. Wright Allen issued a stay with her injunction pending appeal, according Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
"This decision is a victory for the Constitution and for treating everyone equally under the law. It is the latest step in a journey towards equality for all Virginians, no matter who they are or whom they love." Mr. Herring said Feb. 13 in a prepared statement. “When we announced the decision to change Virginia's legal position in Bostic v. Rainey, I said that the case presented fundamental questions that need to be decided by a court, and may ultimately need to be decided by the Supreme Court. That remains true today.
A spokesman for the attorney general's office said Feb. 17 it's expected the defendants in the landmark case will appeal, but that determination had yet to be announced.
"A spirited and controversial debate is underway regarding who may enjoy the right to marry in the United States of America," Ms. Wright Allen noted in her opinion. "America has pursued a journey to make and keep our citizens free. This journey has never been easy, and at times has been painful and poignant. The ultimate exercise of our freedom is choice. Our Constitution declares that 'all men' are created equal. Surely this means all of us."
Virginia voters approved the Marshall-Newman Amendment – 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.
Seventeen states currently allow same-sex marriage.
Elected last November, Mr. Herring brought the issue of gay marriage to the forefront of public debate in Virginia in January when he announced the commonwealth would side with two same-sex couples in a lawsuit challenging the commonwealth's ban. The state's previous position, established by former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican, was to defend the ban and argue against the same-sex couples.
"As Virginians, we have much to be proud of," Mr. Herring 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."
The first attorney general elected from Loudoun County, 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.
Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe echoed Mr. Herring's message of equal rights and praise for Judge Allen Wright's ruling.
“In order to grow our economy and attract the best businesses, entrepreneurs, and families to Virginia, we must be open and welcoming to all who call our commonwealth home,” Mr. McAuliffe said. “As this case continues through the judicial process, I will enforce the laws currently on the books, but this decision is a significant step forward in achieving greater equality for all of our citizens.”
State Del. Bob Marshall, a Manassas Republican who helped author the same-sex marriage ban, quickly lashed out against Ms. Allen Wright's opinion.
“The decision issued by federal district Judge Wright Allen appropriately issued in the cover of darkness is a syllabus of errors, a compendium of ineptitude, and a farce claiming authority,” Mr. Marshall noted in a statement. “Legislating through the Courts against the will of the people is lawless disregard for our representative form of government.”
Loudoun County resident and vocal LGBT activist David Weintraub said he “knew back in 2006 that [Ms. Allen Wright's ruling] would be the eventual result.” The Marshall-Newman Amendment “was unconstitutional the day it was enacted,” Mr. Weintraub said.
“I thought the ruling might come on Valentine's Day - so it's a bit early, and a wonderful gift,” he noted. “There's a good chance this is the one that will end up before the Supreme Court, which is fitting.”
Mr. Weintraub and his partner Jonathan have been together for more than 30 years and held “several religious [marriage] ceremonies of different faiths,” he said.
“And for those of us who fought this battle and were on the losing side for so many years, this is pretty sweet vindication."
Click here to read the judge's ruling.
This story has been updated from an earlier version. More updates, reaction to come.