By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal judge struck down Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional late on Thursday, saying it denied gay couples a fundamental freedom to marry.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Arenda Wright Allen in Norfolk, Virginia, added momentum to growing acceptance of gay marriage in the United States.
Allen said Virginia's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage violated the right to due process and equal protection of the law under the U.S. Constitution. However, she stayed execution of her order striking down the ban pending an appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
"The Court is compelled to conclude that Virginia's Marriage Laws unconstitutionally deny Virginia's gay and lesbian citizens the fundamental freedom to choose to marry," Allen, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, wrote in her 41-page opinion.
She ordered submission of a proposed final order by March 14.
The decision in Bostic v. Rainey, in which two gay couples sought to strike down the Virginia ban, follows two high-profile rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.
The high court paved the way for gay marriage to resume in California. It also struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
Federal judges have cited the DOMA ruling in finding gay marriage bans unconstitutional in Utah and Oklahoma.
Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia recognize gay marriage, including eight states where it became legal in 2013.
Thirty-three ban same-sex couples from marrying by constitutional amendment, statute, or both. In Indiana, a vote by state residents on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage was delayed by at least two years on Thursday.
The American Foundation for Equal Rights, which brought the Virginia case, said Allen's ruling upheld core U.S. principles of equality.
"Laws excluding gay men and lesbians from marriage violate personal freedom, are an unnecessary government intrusion, and cause serious harm. That type of law cannot stand," lead co-counsel Theodore Olson said in a statement.
Olson was part of the legal team that argued before the U.S. high court for the resumption of same-sex marriage in California.
Also applauding the ruling, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement that it "is the latest step in a journey towards equality for all Virginians, no matter who they are or whom they love."
Herring, a Democrat, said last month he would not defend the state's ban on gay marriage in court.
In 2006, 57 percent of Virginians voted for the constitutional amendment imposing the ban. But a poll released in October by Virginia's Christopher Newport University showed that 56 percent of likely voters opposed the ban, while 36 percent favored it - reflecting the reversal in public opinion.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Ken Wills)