The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two lesbian couples who are challenging Virginia’s gay nuptials ban and the commonwealth’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states.
Joanne Harris and Jessica Duff of Staunton, who have been together for more than nine years and are raising a 4-year-old son, tried to apply for a marriage license in Staunton Circuit Court on July 29. Christy Berghoff and Victoria Kidd of Winchester, who have been together for more than nine years and are raising an 8-month-old daughter, married in D.C. in August 2011.
“I’m an Air Force veteran, and if Virginia would just respect our marriage from D.C., it would ensure that my spouse and family could access all the benefits I’ve earned,” Berghoff, who works for the U.S. Justice Department. “I’ve been with Victoria for almost a decade now; and it hurts to have our home state say we are not married when it recognizes marriages entered into by different-sex couples who may have only recently met.”
The ACLU and Lambda Legal filed the lawsuit against the commonwealth’s same-sex marriage ban that voters approved in 2006 slightly more than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court found a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and struck down California’s Proposition 8.
A gay couple from Norfolk last month filed a separate federal lawsuit that challenges Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban.
Neighboring Maryland is among the 13 states and D.C. in which same-sex couples can marry. The federal government also recognizes the marriages of gays and lesbians who legally tied the knot, although their ability to receive Social Security and other federal benefits depends upon whether the state in which they live will recognize their unions.
“It seems contrary to the rights and liberties guaranteed to us by our Constitution, that a trip across the Potomac River, an arbitrary geographical line would somehow grant or deny any citizen equal treatment under the law,” said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia.
A Quinnipiac University poll released on July 18 noted 50 percent of Virginians support same-sex marriage. A survey that Public Policy Polling unveiled a week before found 55 percent of commonwealth residents back nuptials for gays and lesbians.
State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said in a statement he knows of “too many couples” who have moved out of the commonwealth because of “a lack of protections now offered to our neighbors in the District of Columbia and Maryland.”
“With a total of 13 states and D.C. offering equality to couples, Virginia is at a competitive and economic disadvantage,” Ebbin said. “After all, forward thinking companies of all sizes locate where their diverse workforces will enjoy a high quality of life.”
Tucker Martin, a spokesperson for Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Western Division of Virginia in Harrisonburg, defended Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban in a statement to the Washington Blade.
“The voters of Virginia passed a constitutional amendment in 2006 defining marriage in the commonwealth as being only a union of one man and one woman,” Martin said. “It is the law in this state based on the popular will of the voters as expressed at the ballot box.”
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, although spokesperson Brian Gottstein referred to a statement he released after the Supreme Court issued its DOMA and Prop 8 rulings.
“Virginia has followed the traditional definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman for more than 400 years,” Cuccinelli said in a June 26 statement on the justices’ rulings. “Virginians voted overwhelmingly to add this traditional definition to their constitution.”
Cuccinelli, who will face off against former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe in the commonwealth’s gubernatorial election, highlighted his opposition to same-sex marriage last month during a debate at the Homestead in Hot Springs. GOP lieutenant gubernatorial candidate E.W. Jackson and Mark Obenshein, who is running to succeed Cuccinelli as attorney general, also oppose nuptials for gays and lesbians.
McAuliffe in February publicly backed same-sex marriage. State Sens. Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk) and Mark Herring (D-Loudoun,) who are running for lieutenant governor and attorney general respectively, also support the issue.