NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The gay marriage fight arrived in a Southern courtroom Tuesday, as opponents of a Virginia law banning same-sex unions told a federal judge it was just like the Jim Crow-era prohibition against interracial marriage.
Supporters maintained there was no fundamental right to gay marriage and the ban exists as part of the state's interest in responsible procreation.
"We have marriage laws in society because we have children, not because we have adults," said attorney David Nimocks, of the religious group Alliance Defending Freedom.
The case is being closely watched because it could give the gay marriage movement its first foothold in the South, and because legal experts think it's on the fast track to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Recently elected Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, announced Jan. 23 that he would not defend the ban because he thinks it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Federal judges have cited the 14th Amendment in overturning gay marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma. Those rulings are on hold while they are appealed.
Herring, as a state senator, supported Virginia's 2006 voter-approved constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and woman. His change illustrates how rapidly the political and legal landscape on gay marriage in the U.S. is shifting.
Herring's chief litigator, Solicitor General Stuart Raphael, told U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen that Virginia had frequently been on the wrong side of history, citing its interracial marriage ban and its defense of segregation. The 14th Amendment was also used in those cases.
Raphael said supporters have failed to prove how allowing gay marriage would make heterosexual couples less likely to marry.
"That's the Achilles heel in the argument," he said.
Before the hearing, dozens of demonstrators at the courthouse shouted phrases decrying Herring's position. Some of them carried signs saying: "Herring's herring. AG's must uphold the law."
Across the street, a much smaller group yelled their support for gay marriage and carried signs saying: "Marry who you love," which drew honks of support from drivers passing by.
The judge said she would rule soon. Wright Allen is a former public defender and assistant U.S. attorney who was appointed to the post by President Barack Obama.
After Herring's office decided not to defend the law, Wright Allen considered not even hearing verbal arguments because of the "compelling" filing by the attorney general's office.
If Wright Allen finds Virginia's law unconstitutional, Raphael asked her to issue a stay so that nobody can get married until the case is heard on appeal. He said the state wanted to avoid the situation Utah found itself in after marriages were briefly allowed to occur there.
Legal experts said Virginia's fast-track federal court system could hasten a certain appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and perhaps a landmark ruling.