In a movement that began with Massachusetts in 2004, 17 states and the District of Columbia now allow gay marriage, most of them clustered in the Northeast. None of them is in the old Confederacy.
The Virginia case centered on a gay Norfolk couple, Timothy Bostic and Tony London, who were denied a marriage license by the Norfolk Circuit Court on July 1, shortly after the Supreme Court struck down parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Since then, a Chesterfield County couple, Carol Schall and Mary Townley, have joined the case. The couple married in California in 2008. They have a teenage daughter and want Virginia to recognize their marriage.
In her ruling, Wright Allen said the lesbian couple "suffer humiliation and discriminatory treatment on the basis of their sexual orientation."
"This stigmatic harm flows directly from current state law."
Opponents of the Virginia ban say the issue resonates in Virginia in particular because of a landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a Virginia couple and interracial marriage.
Mildred and Richard Loving were married in Washington, D.C., and lived in Virginia when police raided their home in 1958 and charged them with violating the state's Racial Integrity law. They were convicted but prevailed before the Supreme Court.
During verbal arguments in the gay marriage case, Virginia Solicitor General Stuart Raphael said that ban is legally indistinguishable from the one on interracial marriage. He said the arguments used to defend the ban now are the same ones used back then, including that marriage between two people of the same sex has never been historically allowed. Wright Allen concurred with that assessment in her ruling.
"Tradition is revered in the Commonwealth, and often rightly so. However, tradition alone cannot justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry any more than it could justify Virginia's ban on interracial marriage," she wrote.
Raphael also said supporters have failed to prove how allowing gay marriage would make heterosexual couples less likely to marry.
In defending the law, the attorney for the Norfolk clerk said the issue is best left for the General Assembly and the voters to decide.
Nationwide, there are more than a dozen states with federal lawsuits challenging state bans on same-sex marriage.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis