WILLIAMSBURG — Some people thought a federal court ruling against Virginia's constitutional prohibition of same sex marriage was very timely.
"It's the best Valentine's Day present we could ever imagine," yelled one of about 25 activists who met at the Williamsburg/James City County courthouse Friday afternoon to celebrate the decision.
They held signs, waived the rainbow flag and visited the Circuit Court clerk's office.
Tom Fell and Joe Vickstein were going to apply for a marriage license. "It's the only way I could get him to ask me," Fell joked.
They were unable to fill out an application. A clerk, who wanted to be identified only as Brittany, told them that under the current statutes the clerk's office could not take their application.
The federal judge who delivered the ruling on Thursday left Virginia's ban in place pending an expected appeal.
The demonstrators were polite and said they understood. And they left a present for the clerk's office: a heart-shaped box of chocolates.
"We'll be visiting you every Valentine's Day until marriage equality comes to Virginia," pledged Jennifer Ryu, pastor of the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalist Church, and one of the event's organizers."Happy Valentine's Day."
"We want to have a good relationship with the clerk's office," Ryu said in an earlier interview. "We'll be coming here very soon to get licenses for same sex marriage."
The rally was part of a statewide effort by People of Faith of Virginia. There were also rallies in Newport News and Norfolk.
While the activists were happy, they know this isn't the end of the fight.
"It will be appealed, it will probably end up at the Supreme Court," said John Whitley, former chairman of the Williamsburg Democratic Committee. "But in the end, justice and equal rights for all will prevail."
Others were less enthusiastic about the decision.
"Equality of persons is not the same as equality of behavior," said Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, one of the co-sponsors of the 2006 constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage in Virginia and refused to recognize same sex marriages preformed in other states. He took the floor in the House of Delegates Friday to berate the decision.
"While there is no place in society for disrespect for any human being based on their sexual orientation, this does not mean that the state must condone or promote sexual behavior that impairs people with serious illnesses and burdens our health care system," Marshall said.
Others didn't like the way the ruling came about.
"The judge's decision marks a single step in what will be a lengthy legal process that will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court of the United States," said Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City. "What is most disappointing to me is that the people of Virginia were without legal representation in this matter because Attorney General (Mark) Herring chose to side against the commonwealth."
Herring, saying that he thought Virginia's law was unconstitutional, refused to have his office defend it. That follows a similar decision by the Obama Administration to not defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act, parts of which were also thrown out by federal courts. The attorney general of Nevada has recently announced he won't defend his state's gay marriage ban.
James Dwyer, a professor at the William and Mary Law School, argued in a guest column last week on http://www.jurist.org that past success by those seeking gay rights has made changes in state marriage laws less necessary.
"On New Year's Eve 1999, a same-sex couple wanting legally to tie the knot could not secure legal marital status anywhere in the U.S.; could not obtain the federal or state benefits that attach to legal marriage; and indeed in many states were vulnerable to criminal prosecution for having an intimate relationship," Dwyer wrote. "At that time, it made sense to say the state interfered profoundly with the liberty, privacy and equal citizenship of homosexuals.
"Today, both the legal and social climates for homosexuals are vastly different from what they were in 2000," he continued. "Today, as a result of Lawrence v. Texas, every adult in the U.S. has a recognized constitutional right to live with and share an intimate relationship with another consenting adult of the same sex or a different sex, whether married to each other or not."
Gay marriage proponents argue that same sex couples are treated unequally if they are not eligible for state benefits available to married couples.
Democrats in the General Assembly were generally happy with Thursday's ruling.
"I think it's great that the court has stood up for equal rights for all," said Del. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, who said he hadn't had a chance to read the full opinion.
"This is an issue where public opinion has changed faster than any I can think of," Mason said in a phone interview Friday. "The numbers have just about reversed themselves from what they were when the amendment first passed."
The man Mason beat in November, Mike Watson, said his take on the issue would "probably make both sides mad."
"I didn't keep up with testimony, but I'd be disingenuous if I said I was surprised with Judge Wright Allen's ruling," he said. "Ultimately, this is something that will be challenged across the nation and as most prudent individuals recognize, will eventually be settled in the U.S. Supreme Court. On the subject itself, I suspect I'd make both sides mad. Of greater concern for me was the Attorney General's action. This was a constitutional amendment voted on by two different General Assemblies and ratified by a strong majority of citizens. Regardless of the subject, citizens deserve to have their voice heard and it was the AG's role to do so in this case. I don't think it would have changed the outcome; but that was the oath he swore. If he couldn't defend it, he should have made that clear in the campaign."
One of the people at the rally said he and his husband, although they've lived in Virginia for years, went to California to get married. He's hopeful that the judge's decision will stand and that Virginia will have to recognize his marriage.