July 28 (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Monday struck down Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional, the latest in a string of court rulings to back gay marriage.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, ruled 2-1 to affirm a February ruling by a federal judge who struck down the state ban as unconstitutional.
In their ruling, Judges Roger Gregory and Henry Floyd wrote that barring gay couples from marrying violated their rights to due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment.
"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," they said.
Virginia's constitutional ban on gay marriage was approved by 57 percent of voters in 2006.
The panel's decision will take effect in 21 days, but could be stayed if the defendants ask the full court of appeals to review the case.
In his dissent, Judge Paul Niemeyer said there was no fundamental right to gay marriage. Defining marriage is best left up to the states, he said.
The 4th Circuit was the second federal appeals court to void a same-sex marriage ban. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down prohibitions in Utah and Oklahoma in June.
Approval of same-sex marriage has gained pace since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2013 that legally married same-sex couples were eligible for federal benefits.
Since the ruling, every federal and state court that has taken up the same-sex marriage issue - about 20 courts - has ruled against state bans. Nineteen of the 50 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage.
Monday's ruling could also affect similar gay marriage bans in other 4th Circuit states - North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia.
Greg Nevins, a lawyer with Lambda Legal, which argued in favor of striking down the ban, called the ruling "thrilling."
"The fact that we're seeing more and more decisions like these shows that America is ready for marriage equality," he said in a statement.
The Virginia case, Bostic v. Rainey, was brought by two same-sex couples. Fourteen thousand gay couples also were certified as a class for the suit.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Bill Trott, Doina Chiacu and Peter Cooney)
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