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Class-action suit challenges Va.'s same-sex marriage ban

Class-action suit challenges Va.'s same-sex marriage ban

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The ACLU and Lambda Legal filed a federal class-action lawsuit today challenging Virginia law barring same-sex marriage and the state’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed elsewhere.

The suit was filed on behalf of Joanne Harris and Jessica Duff of Staunton and Christy Berghoff and Victoria Kidd of Winchester and seeks to represent all same-sex couples in Virginia who wish to marry here or who have married in other jurisdictions.

“Virginia is home for us. Our families are here, our jobs are here, and our community is a great support for us, but it makes us sad that we cannot get married where we live,” said Harris in a prepared statement.

Harris, a Bedford native, said, “It hits me in the gut that two hours from our house same-sex couples in Maryland and D.C. can marry. I have a serious medical condition and we've had to spend lots of money to try to make sure that Jessi can make decisions for me if there were ever a crisis.”

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act preventing gay couples from receiving federal benefits generally available to married people.

The Supreme Court's ruling does not overrule the state's ban on same-sex marriage, but cleared the for lawsuits by gay Virginians to challenge laws in Virginia and other states banning same-sex marriage.

The ACLU suit, filed in Harrisonburg federal court, is at least the second challenge to Virginia law. On July 18, a gay couple in Norfolk filed suit in federal court there against state and local officials because they were denied a marriage license by the Norfolk Circuit Court clerk’s office.

Lambda Legal, the ACLU, ACLU of Virginia, and the law firm of Jenner and Block are filing the suit together as co-counsel in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia against Gov. Bob McDonnell and other state officials.

The plaintiffs allege that Virginia’s constitutional and statutory marriage bans and through the defendants' enforcement of them, “send a purposeful message that they view lesbians, gay men, and their children as second-class citizens who are undeserving of the legal sanction, respect, protections, and support that heterosexuals and their families are able to enjoy through marriage.”

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said, “Every day that same-sex couples in Virginia are denied the freedom to marry, the government sends a message that they are second class citizens and their families are not worthy of equal dignity and respect.”

Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for the Virginia Attorney General's Office, said the office does not general comment on pending litigation.

In June, after the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Gottstein said, "Virginia has followed the traditional definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman for more than 400 years, and Virginians voted overwhelmingly to add this traditional definition to their constitution.  

"The Supreme Court's decision in California's Proposition 8 case could have had implications for all states with marriage laws similar to California's. As the attorney general's legal duty is to vigorously defend Virginia's laws when they are challenged, he filed a brief with the Supreme Court in conjunction with several other states in the California case and used every available legal argument to defend Virginia's Constitution and preserve the will of the citizens of the commonwealth."

Gottstein said in June that the high court's decision on marriage "makes clear that the rulings have no effect on the Virginia Marriage Amendment or to any other Virginia law related to marriage. Consistent with the duties of the attorney general, this office will continue to defend challenges to the constitution and the laws of Virginia."

-- Frank Green


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