BY STEVE SZKOTAK
RICHMOND, Va. -- Almost overnight, Virginia has emerged as a critical state in the nationwide fight to grant gay men and women the right to wed.
This purple state was once perceived as unfriendly and even bordering on hostile to gay rights. That's changed after a seismic political shift in the top three elected offices, from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats who support gay marriage.
Two federal lawsuits challenging the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage are moving forward, and a hearing on one of the cases is scheduled for Jan. 30.
Along with the recent court rulings in which federal judges struck down gay marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma, gay rights advocates are heartened by the new mood in Virginia.
Symbolically as well, they say, the challenges of Virginia's gay marriage ban resonate because of the founding state's history of erecting a wall between church and state and a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a Virginia couple and a past taboo: interracial marriage.