About two hours after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Virginia's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said he will no longer defend his state's voter-approved constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage equality.
Cooper said the appeals court ruling made it highly likely that North Carolina's ban also will be overturned, rendering "futile" further opposition to the four federal lawsuits challenging it.
"Our attorneys have vigorously defended North Carolina marriage law, which is their job," said Cooper, a Democrat. "But today we know our law almost surely will be overturned as well. Simply put, it is time to stop making arguments we will lose and instead move forward, knowing that the ultimate resolution will likely come from the U.S. Supreme Court."
Cooper had previously stated his personal opposition to the marriage ban, but said it was his duty to defend the state constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2012. He said his decision doesn't mean same-sex marriages in North Carolina can begin immediately. That would take a judge's ruling. But since the 4th Circuit includes North Carolina, he said any federal judge in the state would be bound by the ruling out of Virginia.
Gay marriage proponents have won more than 24 legal decisions around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages.
The U.S. Supreme Court could have at least five appellate decisions to consider if it takes up gay marriage again in its next term, beginning in October.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina represents same-sex plaintiffs in two lawsuits challenging the North Carolina law now pending before a federal judge in Greensboro. Chris Brook, the group's legal director, agreed that the new ruling means the state's ban is likely to be overturned.
Cooper's decision was quickly condemned by Republican officials and groups that campaigned for the amendment approved two years ago. Cooper is widely expected to seek the Democratic nomination to challenge GOP Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016.
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the pro-ban North Carolina Values Coalition, strongly disagreed that it is a forgone conclusion that the law would be overturned.
"It is outrageous that federal judges put themselves in the place of God by seeking to redefine the very institution that He created," Fitzgerald said. "Anyone who believes that this decision in Virginia somehow strikes down North Carolina's Marriage Amendment is wrong. North Carolina's Marriage Amendment still stands, and no judge has found it unconstitutional."