"We recognize that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable. However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws," the divided three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit in Richmond concluded.
The decision follows similar conclusions reached in recent weeks by another federal appeals court when tossing out bans in Utah and Oklahoma.
Lower-court judges in a dozen states have also found voter-approved restrictions on the ability of same-sex couples to get married to be unconstitutional.
The 4th Circuit opinion also will affect marriage laws in other states within its jurisdiction, including West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Only Maryland has legalized same-sex marriage.
Separate orders would have to be issued for affected states in the region outside Virginia.
Gay and lesbian couples in Virginia cannot marry in the state until the current case is fully resolved. That may not happen until the Supreme Court decides whether to review the constitutional issues pending in several states, a process that may not begin at the earliest until later this year.
A federal judge in February struck down Virginia's ban on constitutional grounds, the first time that had been done in a traditionally southern state. The prohibition has effectively been in place since Colonial days, but only incorporated into the state's constitution in 2006.
Monday's ruling continues a near-unbroken string of state and federal court victories nationwide in the past year, giving marriage-equality supporters unbridled encouragement that their ultimate goal will be achieved: striking all laws limiting the rights of homosexuals to wed.
"The choice of whether and whom to marry is an intensely personal decision that alters the course of an individual's life," said the Virginia judges. "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."
In dissent, Judge Paul Niemeyer said the issue should not be in the hands of the courts.
Same-sex marriage is legal in 19 U.S states plus the District of Columbia: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington state.
A separate federal appeals court next month will hear separate challenges to same-sex marriage bans in the four states in its jurisdiction: Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, released this statement on the ruling:
“Today in the Commonwealth of Virginia, love and fairness won. A federal appeals court ruled what the majority of Virginians already know - marriage is a fundamental freedom that should not be denied to lesbian and gay couples regardless of what state they call home. Although we believe that this ruling shouldn’t have been stayed, we are still one step closer – in Virginia, the south, and America - to recognizing and celebrating equality and the diversity of love, commitment, and family.”