By Gary Robertson
NORFOLK, Virginia (Reuters) - A court ruling on whether to overturn Virginia's constitutional prohibition on same-sex marriage will come very soon, the federal judge hearing a lawsuit to strike down the ban said on Tuesday.
The hearing was the latest in a series of state-based challenges of gay marriage, which has increasingly gained acceptance around the United States in recent years.
After hearing oral arguments, U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright told attorneys she would take the case under advisement.
"I will make a decision very soon," said Wright, who remained largely silent during the two-hour hearing.
Two same-sex couples have asked Wright to strike down the state's ban on gay marriage or to order it suspended.
The lawsuit, Bostic v. Rainey, argues that the prohibition violates guarantees under the U.S. Constitution, including equal protection of the law and for due process.
The hearing added momentum to challenges to the state's prohibition on gay marriage. Less than two weeks ago, Mark Herring, Virginia's newly elected attorney general, said he would not defend the ban because it violated equal protection and due process guarantees in the U.S. Constitution.
"I am proud to say that the Commonwealth of Virginia stood on the right side of the law and the right side of history in opposing this discriminatory ban," Herring, who attended the hearing, told reporters afterward.
On Friday, a federal judge in Harrisonburg, Virginia, expanded a lawsuit brought by two lesbian couples into a class-action suit. The lawsuit would cover same-sex couples in Virginia who might want to marry.
Attorney Theodore Olson, representing the gay couples, told the Norfolk court that by denying gay couples the right to marry, Virginia was making them "second-class citizens."
Olson was part of the same legal team that successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court last year for a resumption of same-sex marriage in California.
The high court also struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. But the rulings did not address whether state bans on same-sex marriage were constitutional.
Arguing against lifting the ban, attorney Austin Nimocks of the Alliance Defending Freedom said that, traditionally, marriage had been defined as a union between a man and woman.
Outside the federal courthouse, about 20 supporters of lifting the ban and about twice that many who favored leaving it intact faced off with placards and shouted slogans.
"Acts of sodomy will bring down the fires of God," said one sign. Another said, "Marry Who You Love."
Any ruling by Wright is expected to be appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia recognize gay marriage, including eight states where it became legal in 2013. Thirty-three ban same-sex couples from marrying by constitutional amendment, statute, or both.
Federal judges have overturned such bans in Oklahoma and Utah.
Indiana is pushing ahead with its own prohibition.
In 2006, 57 percent of Virginians voted for the constitutional amendment imposing the ban. But a poll released in October by Virginia's Christopher Newport University showed that 56 percent of likely voters opposed the ban, while 36 percent favored it - reflecting the reversal in public opinion.
(Writing by Ian Simpson; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Jonathan Oatis and Gunna Dickson)