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An appeals courts' decision to strike down Virginia's same-sex marriage ban adds to the growing list of decrees on a hot-button issue that will likely end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, is the second federal appellate court to overturn gay marriage bans, after the Denver circuit, and is the first to affect the South, a region where the rising tide of rulings favoring marriage equality is testing concepts of states' rights and traditional, conservative moral values that have long held sway.

"I am proud that the Commonwealth of Virginia is leading on one of the most important civil rights issues of our day," said Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who had refused to defend the state ban when he took office in January. "We are fighting for the right of loving, committed couples to enter the bonds of marriage."

Virginians voted 57 percent to 43 percent in 2006 to amend their constitution to ban gay marriage and state law prohibits recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states, which the court said infringes on its citizens' fundamental right to marry.

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