The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., handed down a 2-1 decision Monday declaring the state's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, a decision that also covers West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, as well as Maryland, where same-sex marriage is already legal.
"We recognize that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable," said Judge Henry Floyd, who was appointed to the federal district bench by President George W. Bush and elevated to the circuit court by President Obama. "However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws."
Virginia's lawsuit was brought by two couples seeking to marry in the state and two couples seeking to have Virginia recognize their marriages from other states.
Circuit clerks defending the state's ban will have 21 days to decide whether to appeal the decision, which upheld a February ruling from a district judge striking down the ban. They may either appeal for an "en banc" hearing of the full appellate panel, or appeal to the Supreme Court.
As Utah and Oklahoma's cases have both been appealed to the Supreme Court already, the issue is almost certain to be part of the court's docket either in October or early next year.
The high court last year narrowly ruled that the federal government could not deny married same-sex couples benefits under the equal protection and due process clause in the Constitution. In 20 court cases across the country since then, so far primarily in federal district courts and in state courts, same-sex marriage is on a winning streak lending the issue a sheen of inevitability.
An additional six states have legalized gay marriage by court order or legislative action, bringing the total of states with legal same-sex marriage to 19 states and the District of Columbia.