Virginia AG to fight state’s gay marriage ban
By STEVE SZKOTAK
the associated press | January 24,2014
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring speaks at a news conference at his office, Thursday, in Richmond, Va.
RICHMOND, Va. — In a move that could give gay marriage its first foothold in the South, Virginia’s attorney general said Thursday he concluded the state’s ban on same-sex unions is unconstitutional and he will join the fight against it.
Newly elected Democratic Attorney General Mark R. Herring said he would support gay couples who have filed lawsuits challenging the state’s ban.
“After thorough legal review, I have now concluded that Virginia’s ban on marriage between same-sex couples violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution on two grounds: marriage is a fundamental right being denied to some Virginians, and the ban unlawfully discriminates on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender,” Herring said.
Herring stressed the same-sex ban will be enforced despite his challenge.
Herring’s announcement comes on the heels of court rulings in which federal judges struck down gay marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma. He said he announced his decision because oral arguments are scheduled next week in one of the Virginia cases challenging the state’s ban.
Currently the District of Columbia and 17 states allow gay marriage, most of them clustered in the Northeast. None of them are in the old Confederacy.
Nationwide, there are more than a dozen states in which federal lawsuits are challenging state bans on same-sex marriage. The case that is furthest along comes from Nevada, where a federal judge upheld the state ban. That case is at the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but no argument date has yet been set.
Herring’s decision drew divided responses.
Tom Shuttleworth, representing the couples challenging the state ban, praised Herring’s position “on the basic human right of being able to marry the person of your choice.”
“It’s a nice day to be an American from Virginia,” he wrote in an email.
But the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia called the development “disappointing and frightening.”
The Republican speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates said Herring was setting a “dangerous precedent.”
“The attorney general has a constitutional and statutory obligation to enforce and defend the duly adopted laws and Constitution of Virginia,” William J. Howell said in a statement. “This is not an obligation that can be taken lightly.”
The state Republican chairman, Pat Mullins, said Herring should resign if he doesn’t want to defend state laws.
Herring’s announcement came less than two weeks after he started the job as part of the Democratic sweep of the top of the November ballot, changing the state’s political landscape.
With the election of Democrats Terry McAuliffe as governor and Herring as attorney general, who were elected separately, Virginia made a hairpin turn away from the socially conservative officeholders they succeeded, particularly Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, an activist on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
McAuliffe issued an executive order on inauguration day prohibiting discrimination against state employees who are gay.
Virginia voters approved the same-sex marriage ban 57 percent to 43 percent in 2006. But a Quinnipiac University poll in July found that 50 percent of registered Virginia voters support same-sex marriage, while 43 percent oppose it. The survey’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.