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A federal judge is hearing arguments Tuesday on whether Virginia's ban on gay marriage should be struck down in a case that could have repercussions for marriage equality throughout the South.

If the ban is deemed unconstitutional, Virginia will become the first state in the old Confederacy to allow gay marriage. Currently, only Washington, D.C., and 17 states, most of which are in the Northeast, allow gay marriage.

Last month, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced he would go head-to-head with the state on the issue of gay marriage, and would not defend the 2006 voter-approved ban. That decision from the newly elected Democratic attorney general infuriated many Republican lawmakers, who accused Herring of failing to live up to his duty to defend state laws. But Herring's office stuck with siding with the plaintiffs in the case: Norfolk, Va., couple Timothy Bostic and Tony London, who were denied a marriage license by the Norfolk Circuit Court on July 1.

Herring planned to attend the hearing, although Virginia Solicitor General Stuart Raphael is arguing in court on behalf of the state.

Bostic and London argue that the state law denied them liberties that are guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Chesterfield County couple Carol Schall and Mary Townley, who were married in California in 2008, later joined the case.

The plaintiffs are represented by famed attorneys from the American Foundation for Equal Rights Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, who won the battle to overturn California's Proposition 8. Both couples will be present in court.

The suit was filed just before the Supreme Court struck down the section of the Defense of Marriage Act that kept gay couples from receiving federal benefits that married couples are entitled to.

Across the country, more than a dozen states have federal lawsuits challenging state bans on gay marriage.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.