Richard Wolf, USA Today
Virginia's attorney general won't defend the state's constitutionalamendment banning same-sex marriage when it's challenged in federal
court next week.
In a stunning reversal for a Southern state,
newly elected Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, said Thursday
that the ban is unconstitutional and the state will instead side with
two same-sex couples seeking to strike it down.
The reversal is
but the latest in a rapid string of victories for the gay marriage
movement. It follows federal court rulings striking down same-sex
marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma. Last June, the Supreme Court
legalized gay marriage in California and struck down the federal Defense
of Marriage Act.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia
now recognize same-sex marriage. None of them are in the Deep South,
which makes Herring's move in Virginia potentially significant.
believe the freedom to marry is a fundamental right, and I intend to
ensure that Virginia is on the right side of history and on the right
side of the law," Herring said during a late morning news conference.
"As attorney general, I cannot and will not defend a law that violates
Virginians' constitutional rights."
Herring's move comes exactly a
week before the first challenge to Virginia's same-sex marriage ban is
due to be heard in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of
Virginia. Herring said the case, brought by two gay and lesbian couples,
will go forward with two regional Circuit Court clerks defending the
ban. In the meantime, the state will continue to enforce it.
MORE: Virginia couples speak out
state's ban on same-sex marriages, civil unions and domestic
partnerships is one of the most sweeping in the nation. It passed in
2006 with 57% of the vote, and Herring himself voted for it at the time.
But since then, polls have shown a majority of Virginians support
Herring's action is similar to what U.S. Attorney
General Eric Holder, with President Obama's backing, did in refusing to
defend the Defense of Marriage Act. That law, passed in 1996 and signed
by President Bill Clinton, defined marriage for federal purposes as
between one man and one woman. As a result, married same-sex couples in
states that had legalized the practice were not eligible for federal
When the Justice Department refused to defend the law at
the Supreme Court, lawyers representing House Republicans took over its
side of the case. They were granted standing to defend the law but lost
the case when Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a 5-4 majority, said
it violated gays' and lesbians' equal protection and due process rights
under the 14th Amendment.