RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Gay and lesbian couples were getting legally married in the South for the first time on Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way by denying efforts by Virginia and other states to ban such weddings.
More than anywhere else in the country, the conservative South has long stood as a united bloc against same-sex marriage, but that stand has begun to crumble, revealing the growing social divide between the more progressive and urbanized mid-Atlantic states and the deep South.
Virginia's case now applies throughout the 4th U.S. Circuit, which means similar bans in West Virginia and North and South Carolina should fall as well.
"The South, like the nation, is changing," said William R. Ferris, a professor with the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"We'll accept same-sex marriage just like we accepted desegregation and the end of slavery," he added. "These other barriers that have burdened us for too long are coming down and the people in the South are open to change."
But as with other civil rights battles, plenty of southern conservatives vowed Monday to continue fighting to the bitter end.
"Until the courts rule on the matter, South Carolina will seek to uphold our state constitution," said the state's attorney general Alan Wilson, a Republican.
Virginia's 2006 ban on gay marriages was challenged by Timothy Bostic and Tony London of Norfolk, who had been denied a marriage license, and Carol Schall and Mary Townley of Chesterfield County, who wanted their California marriage recognized in the state where they are raising a 16-year-old daughter.
Attorney General Mark Herring, a recently elected Democrat who argued in federal court against the ban, told Virginia's court clerks to immediately begin issuing licenses to any same-sex couples that apply.
Schall and Townley, together nearly 30 years, gazed into each other's eyes, held hands and responded "We do" when Herring then officiated at their "recommitment" ceremony outside the Richmond courthouse.
Schall said it shows that the South — a region once considered inhospitable to gays — has changed.
"It says the South is a wonderful, welcoming and open place," she said.
Polls show gay marriage has less support in the South than anywhere else in the country, but the ground is shifting. The latest AP-GfK survey, in September, found 34 percent of Southerners favored legalizing gay marriage in their state, up from 28 percent the year before.
Southern progressives saw Monday's weddings in Virginia as evidence that the arc of history is bending in their direction.
These court rulings can't help but "change the culture of the South," said the Rev. Nancy Petty, a lesbian whose Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. Her congregation was "dis-fellowshipped" by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992 after deciding to welcome gays and lesbians and bless same-sex marriages long before they were legal.
"I think these kinds of cultural shifts in society and in religion mean that we become a much more accepting, tolerant, diverse community," she said. "That's really important, because we have to learn here in the South how to live with our differences, instead of fighting over our differences."
Not everyone was celebrating. Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said the justices disenfranchised voters who banned gay marriage, and "left Virginians without a definitive answer."
Attorney Byron Babione of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented two Virginia clerks in their appeal, noted that it's still possible that another federal case will reach the Supreme Court and produce a different result.
Following North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper's earlier announcement that he won't keep spending taxpayer money to uphold the state ban approved by voters in 2012, Republican leaders in the state announced Monday they would seek to intervene in court.
"The people of North Carolina have spoken, and while the Supreme Court has not issued a definitive ruling on the issue of traditional marriage, we are hopeful they will soon," said North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in November.
Contributors include Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed in Raleigh, North Carolina; Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia;