A Northern Virginia woman was on the phone researching a same-sex marriage ceremony in Delaware when everything changed. Two men were looking at their intended wedding hall in the District when they heard the news and headed to the courthouse in Alexandria. A woman in Centreville saw an announcement on Facebook and, sobbing, stumbled up the stairs to the bathroom, where her fiancee was in the shower.
“I think,” she said, “we can get married today.”
On Monday, the Supreme Court effectively allowed same-sex marriage to proceed in Virginia when it refused to take up a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that overturned the commonwealth’s ban.
The commonwealth immediately recognized the marriages of same-sex couples who’d already wed in other states. The appeals court issued a mandate to remove the final barrier to marry in Virginia, prompting couples all over to descend on their courthouses, pick up licenses and, in some cases, marry on the spot. From Virginia Beach to Charlottesville to Fairfax, smiling, teary-eyed couples lined up for a moment that dozens of them didn’t think would be possible in their lifetimes — even as opponents of same-sex marriage condemned the justices’ decision and its result.
Yvonne Landis and Melodie Mayo, who live in Falls Church, had waited two decades for the chance to marry in their home state. They arrived in Fairfax just 20 minutes after Virginia changed its rules. They had no time for special clothes or bouquets. Mayo, 50, wore cargo shorts and Landis, 58, had on a pink fleece.
There was joy and a whiplash sense of disbelief at how quickly attitudes had changed toward same-sex marriage and gays in general. Mayo recalled surreptitiously going to lesbian bars in the 1970s.
“Now, we walked up to the courthouse holding hands,” Mayo said. “I wouldn’t ever have thought this day would have happened.”
In Alexandria, those seeking a marriage license got a late start as the clerk of courts waited for official word before issuing the licenses. But at 2 p.m., three couples waiting in the clerk’s office were called to the counter.
Among them were Justin Smith and Jim Scheye, the men who had abruptly abandoned their would-be wedding hall in the District. “This is pretty moving,” said Scheye, a 26-year veteran of the Coast Guard. “I’m proud of my state right now.”
His pride was not shared throughout Virginia.
Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William), co-author of the state’s marriage ban, decried the move in a statement and predicted that “marriage will soon include polygamy, or threesomes, leaving innocent children to suffer the consequences.”
The Supreme Court’s action brought an abrupt end to a case that conservatives in the Virginia House of Delegates had been gearing up to fight. When the legislature met in a special session on Medicaid expansion last month, the House passed a resolution authorizing the speaker to hire an attorney to defend the state constitution or any laws that the attorney general chooses not to defend. The House had not yet hired a lawyer to represent it in the marriage case.
Former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II (R) criticized the ruling, calling it “extremely disappointing.” Cuccinelli asked in an e-mail: “Do the people and the states get to decide anything for themselves under this federal government anymore?”
Inside Virginia’s courthouses, those voices of dissension seemed far away.
On Monday afternoon, Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who refused to defend Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage, stood on the terrace outside the Richmond courthouse and ticked off a list of rights and privileges newly afforded to same-sex couples. They can now adopt children, sign up for each other’s employee benefits, make medical decisions for each other, visit each other in the hospital, transfer an inheritance and file joint tax returns.
His words held special significance for two women standing before him: Carol Schall and Mary Townley, a couple who challenged Virginia’s ban after their California marriage was not recognized in their home state. Herring appeared with the couple to reaffirm their vows.
“For the first time legally in Virginia I can say that I’m here with my wife, Mary, and my daughter, Emily,” Schall told a crowd of news media and supporters. “I don’t think there’s any more profound statement, yet any more simple statement than for me to say that.”
“It’s just amazing that now we are married in Virginia,” Townley said. “When I woke up this morning we weren’t, and now we are.”
Wearing white and cream wedding dresses topped with blazers, Schall and Townley exchanged vows while their daughter, 16, watched and wiped away tears.
“Now,” Emily said just before the ceremony, “Virginia is a state for all lovers.”
In Fairfax, Yvonne Landis and Melodie Mayo had nearly given up the hope of marrying in their home state.
Landis, 58, has heart problems that have become serious enough she felt an imperative to get married, so Mayo, 50, could participate in health-care decisions and be with her during care. That led them to begin planning a ceremony in Delaware, which legalized gay marriage a year ago.
The two had met at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party in 1991. Mayo, who works in computers, was drawn to Landis’s playfulness and sweetness, while Landis, a health instructor, fell for Mayo’s smile. They had a commitment ceremony in Fairfax in 1995.
On Monday, the couple had only come to the courthouse to get a marriage license, but after they got the document they saw a Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax minister, Laura Horton-Ludwig, who had been waiting to perform ceremonies. They seized the moment.
“We were going to see if you could marry us,” Landis asked the minister.
“Oh, great!” Horton-Ludwig replied.
A stranger sitting on a bench nearby became teary-eyed. “Can I watch?” he asked.
Just inside the Arlington County courthouse on Monday, Circuit Court Clerk Paul Ferguson explained to Jennifer Melsop and Erika Turner, both 26, what would come next.
“We have someone who offered to pay the $30 for the first couple,” he said.
“We’re the first couple?” the women responded in stunned unison.
Melsop had learned of the Supreme Court’s decision on Facebook that morning at 11 and headed to Arlington.
They had been together for four years. A year and a half ago, while they watched the Johnny Depp movie “Rango” on the couch, Melsop cracked open a fortune cookie and found Turner’s proposal inside. They had planned to wed in 2015 in the District, but couldn’t wait after Monday’s news.
They stepped off the elevator on the sixth floor. Ferguson showed them the form they’d need to fill out. The words “bride” and “groom” had been replaced with “spouse” and “spouse.”
They filled it out and made their way back downstairs, where a throng of reporters waited outside to witness their ceremony. They embraced, arm in arm.
“You better not cry,” Turner said. “We both put on waterproof mascara today.”
As they walked to the door, Melsop paused and turned to the woman who was about to become her wife. “Who’s going to hold our purses?”
Robert Barnes, Patricia Sullivan, Laura Vozzella, Julie Zauzmer and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.