October 7, 2014
An emotional Tony London stood outside Norfolk Circuit Court on Monday with his legal team and personal assistant after hearing the news.
The U.S. Supreme Court had declined to hear appeals of same-sex marriage court rulings in Virginia and four other states, opening the way for the long-prohibited unions in the Old Dominion.
The moment held special significance for London, who along with his longtime partner, Tim Bostic, filed the lawsuit in Norfolk that ultimately led to the decision. It had been a long wait for this, and now, only minutes separated them from the highlight of what London would later call the greatest day of his life.
In February, U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen ruled that Virginia’s ban on gay marriage violated the U.S. Constitution. In July, a three-judge panel of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
Those decisions were on hold until the Supreme Court decided whether to review them.
Monday’s refusal means same-sex marriages can proceed – not only in Virginia but also soon in North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia, among others.
It also means such marriages will soon be legal in 30 states, accounting for about 60 percent of the American population – at least until the high court issues a definitive ruling nationwide.
The Supreme Court’s decision was hailed by Mark Herring, Virginia’s Democratic attorney general who refused to defend the ban.
“A new day has dawned, and the rights guaranteed by our Constitution are shining through,” he said in a statement.
He was joined in his praise by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, also Democrats.
The decision was, however, assailed by Republican Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell.
“The Court’s decision today leaves Virginians without an affirmative answer on this issue, unnecessarily prolonging the political debate and creating long-term uncertainty regarding the status of same-sex marriages in Virginia depending on the outcome of litigation in other parts of the country,” he said.
Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia, said her group isn’t giving up on restoring the Virginia ban.
“Until the Supreme Court makes a final determination, we will continue to advocate for natural marriage because children deserve, whenever possible, to have both a mom and a dad,” she said.
The Rev. Cory Newell, a wedding officiant in Newport News, said he received several emails and calls Monday from gay and lesbian couples who want to start planning their weddings.
“I’m happy to do it,” Newell said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to build a bridge between the church and the gay community.”
Advocates of same-sex marriage had hoped the Supreme Court would decide the issue for the entire nation. Some believe that still could happen during the court’s current term, which began Monday.
Nevertheless, the Bostic plaintiffs and their supporters hailed Monday’s development as a historic moment for Virginia and the South.
The Bostic case featured two additional plaintiffs, Carol Schall and Mary Townley of Chesterfield County, who sought to have their 2008 marriage in California recognized by Virginia. Schall sought the right to adopt Townley’s teenage daughter, Emily.
“Because of this decision, one of my most important dreams has finally come true: the dream that my family will be recognized just like every other family in Virginia,” Emily Townley said.
The Bostic case had been consolidated with a class-action lawsuit filed in western Virginia by the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, a national advocacy group, on behalf of same-sex couples in the state.
Jon Davidson, legal director of Lambda Legal, said in a conference call with reporters Monday that the Supreme Court “has sent a very clear signal here that it has no problem with allowing same-sex couples to marry.”
That message will now go out to federal courts in the remaining states where gay marriage is still banned, Davidson said, and “we will very soon be seeing a right of same-sex couples to marry throughout the United States.”
The high court offered no explanation for its decision not to review the rulings overturning gay marriage bans in Virginia, Utah, Oklahoma, Indiana and Wisconsin.
But Davidson speculated that the court’s four most conservative justices concluded they could not get the crucial fifth vote for a majority decision affirming states’ right to prohibit same-sex marriage.
That could change, he said, if a federal appeals court upholds such a prohibition in one of the cases still pending around the country. But he said he considers that unlikely in light of Monday’s development.
John Pagan, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the Supreme Court made a “statesmanlike” decision not to take up the issue as long as lower courts are ruling consistently in favor of same-sex marriage.
“There being no conflict at the moment that it had to resolve, the court saw no reason to step in and hurl its constitutional thunderbolt,” Pagan said.
“But thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people will marry before the Supreme Court takes up the issue – if ever,” he said. “As a practical matter, it makes it very difficult for the court to then say, ‘Oh, you know what? We’re going to undo it all.’ ”
In Norfolk, reporters with cameras took up position in the office of Circuit Court Clerk George Schaefer, the man Bostic and London sued when they were denied a marriage license.
Schaefer has said it wasn’t personal. He was just upholding state law.
On Monday, the men joked about the case.
It was a pleasure suing you,” London told Schaefer.
“I enjoyed being sued,” Schaefer replied.
They all laughed.
Larissa Boose Williams and her daughter, Sedona Rain, 10, handed London and Bostic each a bouquet of flowers after they walked through security. They had heard the news and bought them to give to couples.
“Y’all can’t imagine,” London said. “This is the greatest day of my life.”
“This proves that the system works,” Bostic said.
“We’re delighted to do it today,” Schaefer told them. They filled out paperwork and talked to reporters.
“You’ll need to pay,” Schaefer said, drawing some laughter. “The state always gets their money.”
The marriage license cost $30. A reporter asked how much it was worth.
“It’s worth everything,” Bostic replied.
Pilot writer Denise Watson contributed to this report.
Bill Sizemore, 757-618-8855, firstname.lastname@example.org