By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal judge found Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional late on Thursday, saying it denied gay couples a fundamental freedom to marry.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Arenda Wright Allen in Norfolk, Virginia, added momentum to growing acceptance of gay marriage in the United States.
Allen said Virginia's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage violated the right to due process and equal protection of the law under the U.S. Constitution. She stayed execution of her order pending an appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
"The Court is compelled to conclude that Virginia's Marriage Laws unconstitutionally deny Virginia's gay and lesbian citizens the fundamental freedom to choose to marry," Allen, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, wrote in her opinion.
Allen's decision follows two high-profile rulings on gay marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. The high court paved the way for gay marriage to resume in California, and struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) federal law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
Federal judges have cited the DOMA ruling in finding gay marriage bans unconstitutional in Utah and Oklahoma.
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.
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.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Ken Wills)