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Federal appeals court hears arguments in Virginia gay marriage case

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Opponents of Virginia's ban on gay marriage told a U.S. appeals court on Tuesday that the ban discriminated against gay couples, while supporters said they considered it an appropriate defense of a traditional family model.

The hearing, before the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, followed a February ruling by a federal district judge in the state that overturned Virginia's 2006 constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

"We're a way station on (Interstate highway ) 95," said presiding appellate Judge Paul Niemeyer, a nod to advocates on each side of the issue, who have vowed to try to take the case to the Supreme Court if the appeals court rules against them.

Two gay couples, one men and the other women, brought the initial challenge to the Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage.

The attorney for gay men, Theodore Olson with the American Foundation for Equal Rights, argued that marriage was a fundamental right and called Virginia's constitutional amendment discriminatory.

Austin Nimocks of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group, argued for the state ban. He said that marriage existed to promote the production of children and that same-sex couples could not produce them.

The court gave no time for when it might decide.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver last month became the first appeals court to hear challenges to gay marriage bans, in Utah and Oklahoma.

Marriage rights have been extended to gay couples in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The trend has sped up since the Supreme Court ruled last June that legally married same-sex couples are eligible for federal benefits.

(Editing by Ian Simpson and Steve Orlofsky)

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