The ACLU of Virginia on Tuesday announced it will file a federal lawsuit challenging a Virginia constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage — part of a nationwide effort to revisit marriage rights in states where the issue has seemingly been settled.
Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said a team of lawyers will be arguing that the statutes violate the federal constitutional guarantee of equal protection.
Virginia voters in 2006 approved a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Virginia also does not recognize gay marriages performed in other states.
“There is no rational reason for denying these loving couples the freedom to marry and every reason to grant them the same recognition by civil authorities that opposite-sex couples have,” Ms. Gastanaga said.
The ACLU’s announcement is also part of Out for Freedom, a nationwide effort to promote same-sex marriage. It came the same day the group announced lawsuits in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
The legal actions come after the Supreme Court last month overturned part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, striking down a central provision and ensuring that legally married gay couples will be treated the same as opposite-sex married couples in federal programs. A second opinion essentially struck down California’s 2008 Proposition 8 voter initiative banning gay marriage, but the decision was far more limited, focusing on the lack of legal standing for those arguing to preserve the voter initiative.
Same-sex marriage opponents say that because the court did not take on the issue of gay marriage, the legal action undertaken by the ACLU is overreaching.
“Those that wanted to push Proposition 8 and [the Defense of Marriage Act] made attempts to get the court to say same-sex marriage should be a constitutional right in all 50 states,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation. “While they certainly made gains, they did not get the fundamental right in all 50 states.”
The constitutional amendment in Virginia passed 57 percent to 43 percent, and while opponents each year attempt to repeal it, Ms. Cobb said, “They fail abysmally.”
“In Virginia, we have elections essentially every other year, and Virginia has continued to elect candidates who support the constitutional state amendment,” Ms. Cobb said. “Virginia is very clear on who it is electing.”
James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, said they believe recent surveys show the issue isn’t getting the majority to support gay marriage, but spreading the message among lawmakers.
“Polls that we’ve seen for Virginia show a majority do support marriage equality now. A majority of the House of Delegates does not, and that is a starting point for repealing the marriage amendment and marriage laws,” Mr. Parrish said. “We see a marriage overhaul happening in Virginia either through litigation or happening through Virginia voters. We’ll see which comes first.”
He said his organization would help the ACLU’s cause by collecting personal stories from Virginia couples and families with a stake in the freedom to marry effort.
Same-sex marriage remains a divisive issue in Virginia, where the candidates in this year’s governor’s race varied widely in their public statements after the Supreme Court’s decision.
Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe called the ruling one that “moves our nation in the right direction.” Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the Republican candidate, said he would “continue to defend the will of the people of Virginia, an overwhelming majority of whom voted to protect the definition of traditional marriage under Virginia’s Constitution.”
In the Pennsylvania case, 10 same-sex couples and a lesbian widow are suing Gov. Tom Corbett and other state officials for enforcing a law that either blocks the plaintiffs from marrying or having their out-of-state marriages recognized.
The ACLU lawsuit says there are no reasons for Pennsylvania to keep its marriage law and that “neither tradition nor moral disapproval of same-sex relationships or marriage for lesbian and gay couples” should be used to deny people marriage licenses.
In North Carolina, the state’s ACLU announced it would be challenging the ban on same-sex marriages by amending a federal lawsuit filed last year on behalf of gay couples and their children.
Longtime gay-marriage advocate Evan Wolfson said there is “irrefutable momentum” to bring gay marriage throughout America.
He said advocacy groups will work “hand in glove” with litigation groups such as the ACLU and Lambda Legal, Mr. Wolfson said Tuesday. But there is also a need for “education on the ground,” he said, noting that Freedom to Marry, the marriage-equality group he founded, is already investing $500,000 in state marriage campaigns.