4th Circuit Court's same-sex marriage ruling lauded, lambasted in Williamsburg area

The Virginia Gazette

One day after a panel of judges from the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling that struck down Virginia's ban on same-sex marriages, one local expert called it "significant on many levels" while activists and political figures began to voice their opinions on that ruling, which reflect varying sides of the issue.

According to William and Mary associate professor Allison Orr Larsen, not only does the decision potentially pave the way for same-sex couples to marry in the near future, it also casts "serious doubt" on similar gay marriage bans in West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, all states within the same circuit.

"The decision is also extremely important symbolically," Larsen said. "The movement for marriage equality in this country is moving at a rapid pace, and (Monday's) decision is another high-profile victory for same-sex couples seeking to vindicate their fundamental rights."

Larsen described the court's opinion as "strongly worded."

"The court held that denying same sex couples the right to marry prohibits them from participating fully in our society and effectively creates segregation," she said. "That word, 'segregation,' is very charged when talking about civil rights, particularly here in Virginia. To have a federal court of appeals make the analogy to race so explicitly is quite a significant win for the gay and lesbian community."

At least one proponent of same-sex marriage called Monday's ruling "what we've been waiting for," while at least one opponent said she was disappointed in the panel of the court.

"We knew it was just a matter of time before Virginia would come around to understand that this ban is a terrible violation of equal rights for all the citizens of Virginia," said Rev. Jennifer Ryu, minister for the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists. "We watched the states around us come to that same conclusion. Every year we just kept thinking, 'Any day now, any day now, it will be our turn.'"

Del. Brenda Pogge (R-James City) has been an opponent of overturning the ban. She said in an interview Tuesday she continues to support the 2006 amendment to Virginia's constitution that prohibits same-sex couples from marrying.

"I am not happy with the 4th Circuit Court's decision, although I did expect it," Pogge said. "I'm a Christian with a biblical world view, and I believe the term 'marriage' is a description of a covenant between a man and a woman."

Some local supporters of same-sex marriage have begun to draw comparisons to another landmark case in Virginia's legal history — that of Loving vs. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that lifted the state's ban on interracial marriages.

Christian Bale, a William and Mary graduate student who helps lead the LGBT activist community on campus via the student group William and Larry, said, "This is a chance to get on the right side of history. It sounds absurd that you would try to prohibit two people of different races from marrying. But it's the same mindset and the same legal argument, in a way."

But not everyone views it that way.

"The premise was the word 'marriage,' but the case found for the support of marriage between a man and a woman," Pogge said. "I think that the Loving case supports ... a traditional definition of marriage."

What makes the same-sex marriage case different from Loving v Virginia is the fact that the state attorney general defended that case. Before Monday's ruling, Virginia's current attorney general, Mark Herring, had sided with the Norfolk judge who ruled the marriage amendment unconstitutional in February. Instead the appeal of the February ruling was taken up by the state registrar in charge of records and the county clerk who denied the marriage license.

A York County clerk told the Gazette that the county has not received any marriage license applications from couples who identify themselves as same-sex. Neither has Williamsburg and James City, according to Betsy Woolridge, the clerk who handles marriage licenses in those localities.

Woolridge anticipates Williamsburg and James City may eventually see some applications — but not until the final decision is reached by the courts.

"Until the appeal process is over, we will be unable to process any," she said, "but once everything is finalized, assuming it goes forth, we will be happy to process them just like we do for everyone else."

One more local activist, John Whitley, walked to the Historic Courthouse on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg on Tuesday with a sign that said: "Same-Sex Marriage = Due Process & Equal Protection." The other side read: "Marriage equality rules!"

He said there was "no adverse reaction whatsoever" from onlookers, and said a few people even stopped to take photos with him.

"Same-sex marriage is just one small step toward equality that helps to move so many other rights toward reality," Whitley said.

Sampson can be reached by phone at 757-345-2345.

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