US & Canada

Virginia gay marriage ban struck down by US appeals court

Plaintiff's in the federal suit over Virginia's ban on gay marriage, Emily Schall-Townley, left, Carol Schall, centre, and Mary Townley, raise their arms after a hearing on Virginia's same sex-marriage ban in Richmond, Virginia 13 May 2014 Image copyright AP
Image caption Carol Schall, centre, and Mary Townley, right, raise their arms in celebration with their daughter Emily, left, after an earlier ruling striking down Virginia's same-sex marriage ban

A federal appeals court has struck down Virginia's same-sex marriage ban, in the latest in a string of judicial victories for gay marriage supporters.

In a 2-1 decision, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said denying marriage to same-sex couples "prohibits them from participating fully" in society.

The issue is expected eventually to reach the US Supreme Court.

It was unclear if Virginia would begin issuing marriage licences to gay couples immediately.

But Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, said he was "overjoyed" by the ruling.

"Its effect will affirm once again that Virginia is a state that is open and welcoming to all," Mr McAuliffe said in a statement.

Virginia banned gay marriages in its state constitution in 2006 after 57% of voters backed an amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

The decision could also effectively overturn same-sex marriage bans in other states covered by the 4th Circuit - North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia currently allow gay marriages, but more than 70 challenges have been filed in the remaining 31 states.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Supporters of the same-sex marriage ban, which was written into the state constitution in 2006, pray outside a courthouse during an earlier ruling

Gay marriage advocates have won more than 20 favourable legal decisions since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key part of a federal law prohibiting recognition of same-sex unions.

The 4th Circuit decision is one of three recent rulings at the federal appeals court level that have overturned state bans.

In recent months, the 10th Circuit, in the west, upheld lower court rulings overturning same-sex marriage bans in Oklahoma and Utah.

"We recognise that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable," Judge Henry Floyd wrote for the majority in the 4th Circuit decision.

"However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws."

In his dissent, Judge Paul Niemeyer said the decision to allow gay marriage or not should be left to individual states.

"If given the choice, some states will surely recognise same-sex marriage and some will surely not," he wrote. "But that is, to be sure, the beauty of federalism."

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