In a historic move, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
The decision was celebrated by pro-LGBT advocates in other states in the circuit, including West Virginia, but even they say it will take time before the decision impacts gay couples in the state.
As of now, 20 states and the District of Columbia issue licenses for same sex marriage. Many other states, districts and circuits are currently dealing with the issue in the court system.
The 4th Circuit’s ruling said that Virginia constitutional and statutory provisions barring gay marriage and denying recognition of such unions performed in other states violate the U.S. Constitution.
In February, U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen ruled that Virginia's same-sex marriage ban violates equal protection and due process guarantees. Lawyers for two circuit court clerks whose duties include issuing marriage licenses appealed. The lawsuit was filed by two Norfolk men who were denied a marriage license and two Chesterfield County women whose marriage in California is not recognized by Virginia.U.S. District Jude Robert Chambers stayed, or postponed, a decision on a case challenging the state’s gay-marriage ban in June. Chambers said he’d wait to see what the 4th circuit had to say on the issue in this Virginia case before deciding his own. “We fully anticipate that now his decision will be consistent with what the 4th circuit has done,” Kelly Kimble, chair of Fairness West Virginia said, “because it wouldn’t make sense for him to rule contrary to that opinion and be overturned on appeal.”
The Next Step:
Ultimately, the 4th Circuit’s decision is just one piece in a complicated puzzle. As more and more state and federal judges begin to rule on laws against same-sex marriage, and those decisions are appealed up through the court system, it’s likely the Supreme Court will have the final word.
“This 4th Circuit decision can certainly be, I think we expect it to be, appealed to the Supreme Court just like the 10th Circuit before,” Kimble said.
“What will likely happen is that the Supreme Court will consolidate all of those cases and make one decision that’s going to apply to the entire nation.”
Kimble estimated we could see a decision from the high court as early as next year.
The Impact for W.Va.:
Don’t expect state lawmakers to go into session next year and rewrite West Virginia law based on this decision. That won’t happen, according to Delegate Stephen Skinner, the first openly gay member of the West Virginia Legislature.
But, should the Supreme Court overturn the West Virginia’s ban, there are issues legislators will face in making state laws compliant with the U.S. Constitution as the court interprets it.
“There are just many things that are not anticipated today that we’ll need to fix.”
The Human Rights Campaign, a national civil rights group working to achieve equality for LGBT communities, calculated more than 1,100 federal benefits for marriage. Skinner said the number of state benefits married couples receive hasn’t been calculated, but those are areas of code that lawmakers will have to update. The benefits are things like tax credits, pensions, and visitation rights in hospitals, just to name a few. All things married couples are guaranteed and gay partners have no legal right to, at least not yet. For now though, things will remain the same for gay couples in West Virginia. Judge Chambers’ decision could come within days, or take up to a year Skinner said. Then, it’s bound to be appealed and work its way through the federal court system.