The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit today affirmed a district court ruling striking down Virginia’s ban on marriage for same sex couples. The decision will not take effect immediately, but will go into effect in 21 days, unless the defendants file a motion to stay the ruling. The ruling will also be stayed if the defendants ask the full court of appeals to review the case.
The case, Bostic v. Schaefer, included a certified class made up of approximately 14,000 same-sex couples in the commonwealth who want to get married or want their out-of-state marriages recognized in Virginia and are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Virginia, Lambda Legal, and the law firm of Jenner & Block. In addition, two plaintiff couples in Norfolk are represented in the case by attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies, their law firms, Gibson Dunn and Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP and the law firm of Shuttleworth, Ruloff, Swain, Haddad & Morecock, P.C.
In his opinion, Judge Henry F. Floyd wrote: “Civil marriage is one of the cornerstones of our way of life. It allows individuals to celebrate and publicly declare their intentions to form lifelong partnerships, which provide unparalleled intimacy, companionship, emotional support, and security. The choice of whether and whom to marry is an intensely personal decision that alters the course of an individual’s life. Denying same-sex couples this choice prohibits them from participating fully in our society, which is precisely the type of segregation that the Fourteenth Amendment cannot countenance.”
“The historic Supreme Court case that allowed for people of different races to marry, so providentially named Loving v. Virginia, started here,” said James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, who argued the case for the class before the federal appeals court. “In the 47 years since, committed same-sex couples in the commonwealth have been patiently waiting for the freedom to marry the person they love. Today’s decision sends a message that everyone deserves the dignity and protection that only comes with marriage.”
The couples representing the class in the case are Joanne Harris and Jessica Duff of Staunton and Christy Berghoff and Victoria Kidd of Winchester.
“We’re overjoyed that we’re a step closer to being recognized by our loved ones and community the same way that all of our opposite-sex married friends and relatives are,” said Harris. “Although Jessi and I are absolutely committed to each other and our son, marriage holds an unparalleled meaning, both legally and emotionally.”
If the Supreme Court doesn’t grant review of the decision, the appeals court decision will be final and all same-sex couples in Virginia who want to get married or want their marriages recognized will be able to do so. The ruling could also impact similar bans in the remaining fourth circuit states (North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia) that continue to discriminate against same-sex couples.
“This news is thrilling. We argued that barring Virginia same-sex couples from marriage is unconstitutional and harms families and the court agreed. With this ruling, all of Virginia’s same-sex couples are one step closer to the freedom to marry,” said Greg Nevins, counsel in Lambda Legal’s Southern Regional Office in Atlanta. “The fact that we’re seeing more and more decisions like these shows that America is ready for marriage equality.”
The decision marks the third time since the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the so-called federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in U.S. v. Windsor last year that a federal appeals court has declared that state laws denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry or refuse to recognize the out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples are unconstitutional. The ACLU represented Edie Windsor in her successful challenge to DOMA.
“Marriage is a fundamental right of all Virginians,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. “This resounding decision sends a message to every committed and married couple in the commonwealth that they are equal in the eyes of the law. The Virginia ACLU is proud to be able to say that we were advocates for the Lovings almost 50 years ago and grateful also to have had the privilege of representing the loving couples across Virginia who won the freedom to marry today.”