Originally published: Feb. 14, 2014, 10:03 a.m.
Updated: Feb. 14, 2014, 4:51 p.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A federal judge’s ruling overturning Virginia’s anti-LGBT marriage ban on Thursday is pushing the movement for marriage equality southward, as North Carolina gears up for its own upcoming court date challenging a similar ban here.
Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled the commonwealth’s ban unconstitutional, writing, “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.”
She added, “Tradition is revered in the commonwealth, and often rightly so. However, tradition alone cannot justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry any more than it could justify Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage.”
Allen also directly challenged the “welfare of children” arguments used by backers of anti-gay marriage bans.
“Of course the welfare of our children is a legitimate state interest,” she said. “Limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples fails to further this interest. Instead, needlessly stigmatizing and humiliating children who are being raised by the loving couples targeted by Virginia’s Marriage Laws betrays that interest.”
North Carolina faces its own upcoming court date. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina has challenged the state’s second-parent adoption ban and it’s anti-LGBT state constitutional amendment, passed by voters in May 2012. That case will soon be heard in a Greensboro federal court.
Advocates in North Carolina are praising the decision in Virginia and other recent developments nationally. In Nevada, the governor and attorney general there are giving up their defense of a similar ban. Also this week, a federal judge in Kentucky ruled the commonwealth must recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other jurisdictions.
“Week by week it becomes increasingly clear that Amendment One and states bans on same-sex marriage are in violation of the U.S. Constitution,” the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Asheville-based Coalition for Southern Equality, said in a release.
Beach-Ferrara is calling on North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper to cease his defense of North Carolina’s anti-gay amendment.
“The sole purpose of Amendment One is to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals equal rights and protections under the law,” she said. “Every day that it stays on the books, it harms LGBT families. This is precisely why this law cannot stand and should not be defended.”
Cooper has said he is personally in favor of marriage equality for same-sex couples. Speaking at an Equality North Carolina fundraising dinner in Greensboro last fall, Cooper said, ““I personally support marriage equality. I’m for basic fairness. It’s that simple and I’m encouraged everyday that another set of eyes and ears are opened to equality and acceptance.”
Nonetheless, Cooper has also said he has a legal duty to defend the ban in court. Virginia’s attorney general took a different approach, saying he believed his commonwealth’s ban to be unconstitutional and vowing not to defend it.
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, believes Virginia’s ruling will continue to put pressure on Cooper and the pending case in this state.
“I think the tide has turned,” he said. “Now that there is enough public support for jurisprudence to move more quickly on this, it will.”
Sgro notes that every recent case on the issue has been resolved favorably. That puts pressure on leaders like Cooper to take a stand. But, Sgro also notes the differing political reality in North Carolina.
“Roy Cooper refusing to defend the ban is not going to have the same effect as [Virginia Attorney General Mark] Herring refusing to defend his ban,” Sgro said. “Virginia has a Democratic governor who is pro-marriage equality. We have a governor and General Assembly that, I imagine, would jump at the chance to defend the ban.”
Sgro added, “There’s no doubt this puts pressure on [Cooper] to look at the issue and it puts pressure on him to take a second approach and think if it makes sense to be defending the ban.”
When reached for comment today, Noelle Talley, a spokesperson for Cooper, issued remarks similar to past statements from Cooper’s office.
“North Carolina should change its laws to allow marriage equality and I believe basic fairness eventually will prevail,” the statement from Cooper’s office read. “However, when legal arguments exist to defend a law, it is the duty of the Office of the Attorney General under North Carolina law to make those arguments in court.”
Talley added, “We’re reviewing the ruling but do not expect anything to change since it is a ruling from a district court and neither the 4th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on it.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina is representing six families in the Greensboro suit originally filed last July, following the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning a portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
“The ruling in Virginia is the latest example of how discriminatory bans on marriage for same-sex couples are impossible to square with the protections of the Constitution,” Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU-NC Legal Foundation, said in a release. “Support for the freedom to marry continues to grow across North Carolina and the nation, and we will continue working to make sure that all North Carolina couples are afforded the dignity and protection that comes only with marriage.”
The ACLU’s Virginia chapter was also quick to speak out, sending out a release shortly after midnight as news of the Virginia decision spread.
“This is a wonderful day for all loving and committed couples in Virginia who only ever wanted the same protections for their families as anyone else,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. “The court is right to strike down this sweeping and discriminatory ban. We congratulate the attorneys and their clients.”
A separate class-action suit Virginia’s western U.S. District Court will continue. Plaintiffs there have asked for a quick ruling.
The case decided yesterday is likely to be appealed. Allen issued a stay on her ruling, preventing the confusion that occurred after a judge in Utah refused to issue a stay and more than 1,000 same-sex couples were wed.
Allen is a 1985 graduate of North Carolina Central University School of Law. She was nominated by President Barack Obama to her federal bench in 2010.