(CN) - Virginia's laws denying same-sex couples the right to marry or have their marriages recognized are "the type of segregation that the Fourteenth Amendment cannot countenance," the 4th Circuit ruled.
The advocacy group Human Rights Campaigned hailed it as the 19th consecutive federal court decision in favor of marriage equality, and multiple news outlets have reported that the decision could pave the way for a Supreme Court decision as early as next year.
In a 63-page opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Henry Floyd wrote that "inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws."
"Civil marriage is one of the cornerstones of our way of life," the majority opinion states. "It allows individuals to celebrate and publicly declare their intentions to form lifelong partnerships, which provide unparalleled intimacy, companionship, emotional support, and security. The choice of whether and whom to marry is an intensely personal decision that alters the course of an individual's life. 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."
Circuit Judge Roger Gregory joined the decision, which strikes down Virginia laws prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying and refusing to recognize marriages from elsewhere.
In a bitter dissent, Judge Paul Niemeyer argued that same-sex marriage would lead to recognition of "polygamous or incestuous relationships."
That line cites Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent, which was rejected overwhelmingly in Romer v. Evans
, a landmark decision overturning state legislation preventing gay, lesbian and bisexual people from being recognized as a protected class.
The 4th Circuit has jurisdiction over Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina.
The American Civil Liberties Union reportedly announced that it intends to get North Carolina's same-sex marriage ban thrown out in the wake of the decision.
Lawyers for couples that challenged the ban did not immediately respond to a request for comment.