RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Attorney General Mark Herring says Virginia has a dark past of arguing against interracial marriage and school integration, and he wants the state to be on the right side of history with gay marriage.
Just two weeks on the job, the newly elected Democrat said Thursday he would fight against Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage, angering Republicans and conservatives who accused him of abandoning his job.
"It's frightening that politicians like the attorney general feel that they can pick and choose which aspects of the Constitution they deem worthy to defend and apply," said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia.
With Herring's decision, gay marriage moved closer to gaining its first foothold in the South and gay rights activists cheered the latest in a string of victories — this one in a conservative and usually hostile region of the country.
"It's time for the commonwealth to be on the right side of history and the right side of the law," Herring said of a state that fiercely resisted school integration and interracial marriage in the 1950s and '60s.
The move reflects the rise of a new Democratic leadership in Virginia and illustrates how rapidly the political and legal landscape on gay marriage in the U.S. is shifting.
Herring, as a state senator, supported Virginia's 2006 voter-approved constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and woman. But he said he decided after a "thorough legal review" that it is unconstitutional, and he will join gay couples in two federal lawsuits challenging the ban.
He said marriage is a fundamental right and the ban unlawfully discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation and gender.
A federal judge will hear arguments in one of those lawsuits next week.
Herring stressed the ban will be enforced in the meantime, meaning clerks will continue to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
In a movement that began with Massachusetts in 2004, 17 states and the District of Columbia now allow gay marriage, most of them clustered in the Northeast. None of them is in the old Confederacy.
In just the past five weeks, federal judges struck down gay marriage bans in deeply conservative Utah and Oklahoma, but those rulings are on hold while they are appealed.