Updated: 6:30 p.m. EDT
RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban was ruled unconstitutional on Monday in the first such decision by a federal appellate court in the South.
“We recognize that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable. However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws,” Judge Henry F. Floyd wrote.
The 2-1 ruling applies throughout the circuit that also includes West Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas, where the attorneys general split Monday on what they’ll do next.
North Carolina’s top lawman, Roy Cooper, quickly announced that he’ll stop defending his state’s ban, saying it is “time to stop making arguments we will lose.” But a spokesman for South Carolina’s attorney general, Alan Wilson, said he sees no need to change course.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond is the second federal appellate court to overturn gay marriage bans, and the first to affect the South, a region where the rising tide of rulings favoring marriage equality is testing concepts of states’ rights that have long held sway.
Defenders of marriage bans are likely to ask for a stay pending their next appeal; otherwise, marriage licenses to Virginia’s same-sex couples could begin to be issued in 21 days.
Gay marriage proponents have won more than 20 legal decisions around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year. Most are still under appeal. More than 70 cases have been filed in all 31 states that prohibit same-sex marriage. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow such marriages.
The U.S. Supreme Court could have at least five appellate decisions to consider if it takes up gay marriage again in its next term, beginning in October.
The 6th Circuit in Cincinnati will hear arguments on Aug. 6 for Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee. The 7th Circuit in Chicago is set for arguments on Aug. 26 and the 9th Circuit in San Francisco for Sept. 8. The 10th Circuit in Denver overturned Utah’s ban in June.
“Marriage is one of the most fundamental rights — if not the most fundamental right — of all Americans,” said plaintiffs’ attorney David Boies. “This court has affirmed that our plaintiffs — and all gay and lesbian Virginians — no longer have to live as second-class citizens who are harmed and demeaned every day.”
The 4th Circuit decision will apply to the entire circuit when it becomes final, American Civil Liberties Union lawyer James Esseks said.
Maryland already allows same-sex marriages. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, for his part, said he’s reviewing the decision and won’t comment until it’s final.