RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled Monday, one of more than 20 legal decisions around the country favouring gay marriage proponents since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defence of Marriage Act last year.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond is the second federal appellate court to overturn gay marriage bans, after the Denver circuit, and is the first to affect the South, where states’ rights have held particular sway for generations.

More than 70 cases have been filed in all 31 states that prohibit same-sex marriage. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow such marriages.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper quickly announced Monday that his office will stop defending his state’s ban, saying, it is “time to stop making arguments we will likely lose.” But a spokesman for South Carolina’s attorney general, Alan Wilson, said he sees no need to change course.

Cooper joins a growing number of top state lawmen, including Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who have refused to defend their state bans.

“I am proud that the Commonwealth of Virginia is leading on one of the most important civil rights issues of our day,” Herring said. “We are fighting for the right of loving, committed couples to enter the bonds of marriage.”

In Monday’s 2-1 opinion in Virginia, the judges ruled that Virginia’s constitutional and statutory provisions barring gay marriage and denying recognition of such unions performed in other states violate the U.S. Constitution. The defendants are likely to ask for the ruling to be stayed pending more appeals to the full 4th circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court; otherwise, marriage licenses to same-sex couples could begin to be issued in 21 days.

Virginians voted 57 per cent to 43 per cent in 2006 to amend their constitution to ban gay marriage. Virginia laws prohibit recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states. Writing for the 2-1 majority, Judge Henry F. Floyd said Virginia’s bans “impermissibly infringe on its citizens’ fundamental right to marry.”

Three more federal appeals of gay marriage rulings are coming up: The 6th Circuit in Cincinnati will hear arguments on Aug. 6 for Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee. The 7th Circuit in Chicago is set for arguments on Aug. 26 and the 9th Circuit in San Francisco for Sept. 8.

The many rulings give the U.S. Supreme Court plenty of options to take up gay marriage again in its next term, beginning in October.

The 4th Circuit decision also will apply to other states in the circuit when the decision becomes final in 21 days, providing that the court does not issue a stay at the request of the supporters of Virginia’s gay marriage ban, said James Esseks, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. Maryland, one of the states in the circuit, already allows same-sex marriages.

In February, U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen ruled that Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection and due process guarantees. Lawyers for two circuit court clerks whose duties include issuing marriage licenses appealed. Attorney General Mark Herring, representing a state official also named as a defendant, sided with the plaintiffs.

Family Foundation of Virginia President Victoria Cobb, who had not fully read the entire ruling, said the court “ignored all the facts and evidence that the government’s only interest in marriage is that kids, whenever possible, have a mom and a dad.”

The Virginia lawsuit was filed by Timothy Bostic and Tony London, who were denied a marriage license, and Carol Schall and Mary Townley. The women were married in California and wanted their marriage recognized in Virginia, where they are raising a 16-year-old daughter.

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Associated Press writers Brock Vergakis in Norfolk and Amanda Myers in Cincinnati contributed to this report.