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Federal court strikes down Virginia same-sex marriage ban but stays order

Virginia's state capitol building in Richmond
Virginia's state capitol building in Richmond
(c) Rick Sincere 2014. All rights reserved.

In a case that involves a confusing mix of plaintiffs, defendants, and ex-defendants who have taken the side of the plaintiffs, a federal judge late on the eve of Valentine's Day struck down both Virginia's statutes prohibiting same-sex marriage and a state constitutional amendment that does the same

“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,” wrote Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in a 41-page opinion. “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.”

In the case of Bostic v. Rainey, Wright Allen (nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate in 2011) granted the plaintiffs request for summary judgment and found that “Va. Const. Art. I, § 15-A, Va. Code §§ 20-45.2, 20-45.3, and any other Virginia law that bars same-sex marriage or prohibits Virginia's recognition of lawful same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions unconstitutional. These laws deny Plaintiffs their rights to due process and equal protection guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

At the same time, Wright Allen stayed her order pending review by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond.

In strong language, Wright Allen stated that the Commonwealth of Virginia's defense of its same-sex marriage bans failed to meet even the very low legal hurdle of rational-basis analysis

“Virginia's Marriage Laws fail to display a rational relationship to a legitimate purpose,” she wrote, “and so must be viewed as constitutionally infirm under even the least onerous level of scrutiny. Accordingly, this Court need not address Plaintiffs' compelling arguments that the Laws should be subjected to heightened scrutiny."

If there are any “legitimate purposes” behind the same-sex marriage bans, she argued, they “share no rational link with Virginia Marriage Laws being challenged. The goal and the result of this legislation is to deprive Virginia's gay and lesbian citizens of the opportunity and right to choose to celebrate, in marriage, a loving, rewarding, monogamous relationship with a partner to whom they are committed for life. These results occur without furthering any legitimate state purpose.”

Wright Allen's ruling follows similar federal court decisions in Utah and Oklahoma (which are cited in her opinion) and, most recently, Kentucky.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who made national headlines in January when he refused to defend the marriage laws and instead presented a brief on behalf of the gay couples seeking to overturn the ban, issued a short statement in advance of holding a press conference on Friday morning:

In a press release, Herring said that the district court's 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.”

Acknowledging the court's stay of its order, Herring noted that the legal process “will continue to play out in the months to come, but 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's news conference will take place at 11:45 a.m. on Friday, February 14, in the auditorium of the Pocahontas Building at 900 E. Main Street in Richmond.

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