West Virginians, who are anxious for legal guidance on the issue of same-sex marriage, should keep an eye on neighboring Virginia. West Virginia U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Chambers decided recently to postpone his decision in a same-sex case here pending the outcome of a legal challenge to the Commonwealth’s definition of marriage.
The Richmond-based U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals may have a decision before the end of the summer in a case where two same-sex couples challenged Virginia’s law that prevented them from marrying. The appeal comes from a decision earlier this year by U.S. District Court Judge Arenda Wright Allen in Norfolk which struck down the prohibition.
Judge Allen compared the ban to an old Virginia law that blocked interracial marriage. That was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967.
Marriage, the judge reasoned, is a basic civil right protected by the 14th Amendment, and that right is not limited to heterosexuals. “Gay and lesbian individuals show the same capacity as heterosexual individuals to form, preserve and celebrate loving, intimate and lasting relationships,” Allen wrote.
Lambda Legal is representing three same-sex couples in West Virginia that now have their cases pending before Judge Chambers. Lambda Legal attorney Beth Littrell believes what happens in Richmond will influence Chambers.
“If the 4th Circuit affirms the Virginia decision and says that same-sex couples have to have access to marriage, there is no justification, there would be no legitimate reason, that West Virginia would be able to put up an argument (against such marriages) that would hold up in court,” Littrell told me on a recent Talkline.
State laws against same-sex marriage have been falling like dominos since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the federal government must recognize them. Just this week, A federal appeals court ruled that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, making it the 21st consecutive case where the proponents have won in state and federal courts.
This is a meaningful change in our country where a founding principle guarantees an individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit if happiness. The courts have determined that marriage is among those rights. As Judge Allen wrote, people must be free from unwanted government interference to exercise that right, regardless of their sexual orientation.