By Ryan Cornell
Same-sex couples in Virginia were celebrating a momentous Valentine's Day after a federal court ruled to legalize same-sex marriage on Thursday.
The ruling would allow same-sex couples to marry in Virginia and extend the same rights to same-sex couples legally married elsewhere, pending an appeal.
Holly Hewlett, a Winchester resident and equal rights advocate, said the issue has never been about special rights.
"It's about having the same rights as any U.S. citizen," she said. "The government should never be involved in choosing who to love."
Hewlett married her wife, Tonja, in Vermont three years ago and said that once the ruling takes effect she will be able to claim marriage benefits on their taxes and, if something were to happen, earn custody of Tonja's daughter. She added that Tonja would also be able to have hospital visiting privileges as a spouse.
"I'm very excited," she said. "I wish she [Judge Wright Allen] hadn't stayed her decision, but I understand why she did. It allows for everyone's voice to be heard. It's not about pushing the gay agenda, it's about letting everyone's voice be heard."
Hewlett mentioned the Loving vs. Virginia case and said the commonwealth has a long history of having to be dragged into the future.
"Just like the dismantling of slavery, people get to the point where they realize, 'I need to stop being on the wrong side of history,'" she said.
The Winchester chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) had planned to demonstrate in front of the city's courthouse on Friday before the snowstorm canceled the event.
Although the snow had been predicted, PFLAG Treasurer Derek Fox said the ruling was not.
"I didn't know they would have a ruling so soon," he said. "It was kind of a surprise.
"It impacts us a lot because some of the people who have come to our meetings have been wed in other states," he said. "As long as it's not appealed, they'll be recognized in this area."
He said the issue is also one that affects him personally.
As a gay man, Fox said he would like to be able to tie the knot in Virginia someday. He said a relative of his who is a lesbian and was married in Washington, D.C. will now be able to enjoy the same rights as other married couples.
"If their spouse dies, they'll be able to get the estate," he said.
Fox said that pending any appeals, the ruling could lead to more states in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit legalizing same-sex marriage such as West Virginia and North Carolina.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia was one of the parties filing a case on behalf of two Harrisonburg couple certified as a class action representing all same-sex couples in Virginia, which will continue in federal district court.
In a statement, ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Gastañaga said, "This is a wonderful day for all loving and committed couples in Virginia who only ever wanted the same protections for the families as anyone else."
In the spirit of the occasion, some have taken the commonwealth's ubiquitous slogan and added a word: Virginia is for "all" lovers.
Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org