In a 2-1 ruling today, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which decides appeals from federal courts in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Maryland — found Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. The precedent from the ruling applies to all of these states.
Affirming a lower court ruling and writing for the Court in Bostic v. Schaefer, Judge Henry F. Floyd said:
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. Civil marriage is one of the cornerstones of our way of life. It allows individuals to celebrate and publicly declare their intentions to form lifelong partnerships, which provide unparalleled intimacy, companionship, emotional support, and security. The choice of whether and whom to marry is an intensely personal decision that alters the course of an individual’s life. Denying same-sex couples this choice prohibits them from participating fully in our society, which is precisely the type of segregation that the Fourteenth Amendment cannot countenance.
The decision is not effective immediately, though. Per the judgment entered by the court, the ruling will take effect after a mandate is issued in the case — “7 days after expiration of the time to file a petition for rehearing expires, or 7 days after entry of an order denying a timely petition for panel rehearing, rehearing en banc, or motion for stay of mandate, whichever is later.”
A petition for review by the U.S. Supreme Court may also follow.
Several challenges to North Carolina’s bans on same-sex marriage are working their way through the federal courts, including two cases filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina in federal court in Greensboro.
Fisher-Borne et al. v. Smith was filed in July 2013 on behalf of six families across the state headed by same-sex couples as an amendment to a 2012 lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s ban on second parent adoptions.
Gerber and Berlin et al. v. Cooper was filed in April 2014 on behalf of three married, same-sex couples seeking state recognition of their marriages. Because of the serious medical condition of one member of each couple, they are asking the court to take swift action.
“Today’s ruling sets a clear precedent for courts in North Carolina and is the most significant step to date toward securing the freedom to marry for all loving and committed couples in our state,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation. “Though there is still much work that needs to be done, this ruling has given an enormous boost to our efforts to ensure that all loving and committed couples are able to have the security and dignity that comes only with marriage.”
A third suit, General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper, was filed in federal court in Charlotte on behalf of same-sex couples and four national religious denominations – the United Church of Christ, the Alliance of Baptists, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists and the Central Conference of American Rabbis – in addition to Episcopalian, Jewish and Baptist clergy from across North Carolina. The same-sex couples are seeking the freedom to marry and the clergy are seeking the religious freedom to perform wedding ceremonies for such couples.
“Federal courts in recent months have made clear – emphatically and unequivocally – that it is unconstitutional for state governments to discriminate against loving and committed couples who want the benefits and security that marriage provides,”said Jacob Sussman, lead counsel for plaintiffs in General Synod and partner at Tin Fulton Walker & Owen.
The Court’s ruling is the third federal appeals court decision upholding marriage, following recent rulings by the 10th Circuit in Utah and Oklahoma.
Utah is in the process of seeking review of the decision involving its law by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Read the Fourth Circuit decision in Bostic here.