BY JONATHAN POLSON
A federal judge ruled last Thursday, February 13 that the Commonwealth of Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, citing the freedom to marry as a fundamental right of all United States citizens, regardless of sexual orientation.
Judge Arenda Wright Allen of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia delivered the ruling on a lawsuit brought to court by two homosexual couples from Norfolk.
In the 41-page opinion, Allen states, “Virginia’s Marriage Laws unconstitutionally deny Virginia’s gay and lesbian citizens the fundamental freedom to choose to marry.”
Citing the due process and equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, Allen stated, “the Supreme Court has recognized repeatedly that marriage is a fundamental right.”
“Gay and lesbian individuals share the same capacity as heterosexual individuals to form, preserve and celebrate loving, intimate and lasting relationships…created through the exercise of sacred personal choices,” said Allen.
She went on to state that the U.S. Constitution affords the same rights to all citizens and the right to make choices such as who to marry “must be free from unwarranted government interference.”
Allen countered the defense of tradition, stating, “tradition alone cannot justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry” and that the ban holds no legitimate state purpose.
“Government interests in perpetuating traditions, shielding state matters from federal interference, and favoring one model of parent 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,” wrote Allen.
This decision overturns a 2006 amendment to Virginia’s Constitution and subsequent state law that prohibited same-sex marriage. This also follows newly inaugurated Attorney General Mark Herring’s reversal on the issue. In 2006, as a state senator, Herring voted in favor of the ban but recently declared that he would not support it as attorney general.
However, this ruling does not immediately make same-sex marriage legal in the Commonwealth. Allen stayed the ruling based on an expected appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, according to the Washington Post.
The stay temporarily halts further legal processes, and therefore marriage licenses will not be available for same-sex couples. If the ruling is confirmed by the higher court then the legal process for allowing same-sex marriages in Virginia can begin.
Many are hoping that the higher court upholds the ruling and that Allen’s decision leads toward legalization of same-sex marriage in Virginia.
“I think that it’s great Virginia is showing a progressive move toward the future, which should include equal marriage for all,” said junior international affairs major Ally Thames.
Allen’s ruling also states that the Commonwealth of Virginia must respect same-sex marriages legally obtained within other states. According to the Associated Press, Virginia is now the second state in the South to rule that the state must recognize legal same-sex marriages.
The ruling is significant within the current context of national debate over same-sex marriage, especially after the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act this past June. The Supreme Court’s decision declared that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages from states in which it is legal, but it did not address whether prohibition of same-sex marriage is or is not constitutional.
“I am glad Virginia is heading toward the right side of history,” said Chris Dingus, president of the University of Mary Washington’s Young Democrats. “Hopefully this trend continues.”
Dingus expressed hope that Virginia will now help set into motion similar rulings throughout peripheral states in the South.
“This ruling lays the groundwork for more progress not only in Virginia but in surrounding states as well,” said Dingus.
Virginia’s decision joins recent, similar state rulings from Oklahoma and Utah. Fights across the country to end state restrictions on marriage are collectively pushing for a more definite Supreme Court decision on whether the Constitution provides a right to same-sex marriage.