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Decided: July 28, 2014

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court and held as unconstitutional Virginia’s statutes and constitutional amendments that prohibit (1) same-sex marriage in Virginia and (2) state recognition of same-sex marriages performed outside of Virginia.

The Appellees, two same-sex couples, each in committed relationships for more than twenty years, challenged the constitutionality of Virginia statutes and constitutional amendments that ban same-sex marriage in the state. Specifically, the Appellees objected to: (1) Virginia Code section 20-4.2, which prohibits marriage between persons of the same-sex and declares as void all same-sex marriages performed outside of Virginia; (2) Virginia Code section 20-4.3, which applies the same-sex ban to civil unions and any other similar arrangements; and (3) the Marshall/Newman Amendment to the Virginia Constitution, which provides that the only valid marriages in Virginia are those between members of the opposite sex. The Appellees averred that the aforementioned laws violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

After determining that the Appellees had standing, the Fourth Circuit addressed the appropriate level of scrutiny for the Appellees’ Fourteenth Amendment claims. The Court noted that the United States Supreme Court has held that marriage is a fundamental right, and that in its seminal right-to-marriage cases, the U.S. Supreme Court defines the right to marriage broadly, instead of as the “the right to marry interracially” or “the right of prison inmates to marry.” See Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987); Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967). Finding that the right to marry was a fundamental right that applied to same-sex couples, the Court declared that the appropriate level of scrutiny is strict scrutiny for laws that impede on same-sex couples’ right to marry. Thus, to justify the laws, the proponents of these laws would need to show that the laws furthered a “compelling state interest” and that the laws were “narrowly drawn to express only those interests.” Cary v. Population Servs. Int’l, 431 U.S. 678, 686 (1977).

The Fourth Circuit rejected each of the five compelling interests that the proponents of these laws claimed, which included: (1) Virginia’s federalism-based interest in defining marriage within the state; (2) the history and tradition of marriage as a relationship between a man and woman; “(3) protecting the institution of marriage; (4) encouraging responsible procreation; and (5) promoting the optimal childrearing environment.”

The Court reasoned that (1) federalism does not “justify denying individuals of their constitutional rights;” (2) neither history nor tradition are compelling interests; (3) same-sex couples seek marriage for the very same hallmarks that the state seeks to protect, including faithfulness, and allowing same-sex couples to marry will likely “strengthen the institution of marriage;” (4) because infertile opposite-sex couples are permitted to marry, prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying “makes little sense;” and (5) in addition to the “dubious proposition that same-sex couples are less capable parents,” there is no congruency between the same-sex marriage prohibition, and the state’s desired outcome of “optimal childrearing;” a prohibition on marriage does not preclude same-sex couples from raising children. Ultimately, the Court noted that “inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws,” and to do so violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

Full Opinion

Amanda K. Reasoner