RICHMOND, VA (WWBT/AP) - The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Virginia's same-sex marriage ban on Monday.
The three-judge panel split 2-1 to uphold a prior district court's decision the state's ban is unconstitutional.
Judges Henry Floyd and Roger Gregory agreed with District Court Judge Arenda Allen's prior opinion, while Judge Paul Niemeyer dissented.
"The choice of whether and whom to marry is an intensely personal decision that alters the course of an individual's life," reads the opinion. "Denying same-sex couples this choice prohibits them from participating fully in our society, which is precisely the type of segregation that the Fourteenth Amendment cannot countenance."
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When or if same-sex couples will be able get a marriage license in the state is not immediately clear.
Virginia's General Assembly approved the same-sex marriage ban in 2005 and it was ratified into law by 57 percent of voters in 2006.
Same-sex marriage supporters argue it does not matter how long a tradition has been in place if it denies someone a fundamental right provided by the U.S. Constitution, regardless of what Virginia voters decide.
"A federal appeals court ruled what the majority of Virginians already know - marriage is a fundamental freedom that should not be denied to lesbian and gay couples regardless of what state they call home," wrote James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia. "While we hope this ruling will not be stayed, we are still one step closer – in Virginia, the south, and America - to recognizing and celebrating equality and the diversity of love, commitment, and family."
However, Judge Niemeyer asserted the right of individual states to create laws which govern their citizens.
"We must allow the States to enact legislation on the subject in accordance with their political processes," he wrote in a separate opinion.
Opponents of same-sex marriage in Virginia argue marriage is a centuries-old institution between only a man and a woman and point out that it is up to each individual state to decide how it chooses to govern marriage.
"A substantial majority of Virginia's voters approved an amendment to Virginia's Constitution that affirms that marriage is the union of one man and one woman," Family Foundation of Virginia president Victoria Cobb said. "It's unfortunate that the court rejected the right of Virginians to define marriage consistent with their concern with what's best for children and society as a whole. It's sad that the judges have chosen to disenfranchise the 1.3 million Virginians who legally voted to amend our constitution."
Cobb says the ruling is sending a startling message to Central Virginia families.
"I believe that we now have a situation that where the government is intentionally allowing for and creating motherless and fatherless homes, and that is just unfortunate for the children that will feel that loss," Cobb said.
Attorney General Mark Herring has sided with same-sex marriage advocates, however both sides have conceded the final decision likely will be made in the Supreme Court.
"This is about much more than who wins or loses in court. We should never lose sight of the fact that we are fighting for the right of loving, committed couples to enter into the bonds of marriage," Herring said.
The law is being challenged by Timothy Bostic and Tony London, a Virginia Beach couple, as well as Carol Schall and Mary Townley from Chesterfield.
Bostic and London have been in a relationship since 1989 and have lived together for more than 20 years. They applied for a marriage license in Norfolk in July 2013, but were denied by the clerk of court.
Schall and Townley have been together since 1985, have a child together and were legally wed in California in 2008.
Joanne Harris and Jessica Duff of Staunton and Christy Berghoff and Victoria Kidd of Winchester also joined the suit.
Gay marriage proponents have won more than 20 legal decisions around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, according to the Associated Press, however those rulings remain in various stages of appeal.
Same-sex marriage is currently legal in the District of Columbia and 19 states. In all, the AP counts more than 70 cases filed in the remaining 31 states prohibiting same-sex marriage.
"I am overjoyed by the news that, as a result of today's ruling, Virginia will become a state where two people who love each other can get married regardless of their sexual orientation," said Governor Terry McAuliffe in a statement. "This is a historic ruling for our Commonwealth, and its effect will affirm once again that Virginia is a state that is open and welcoming to all."