RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia's Catholic bishops said in a July 28 statement that "those with same-sex attractions must be treated with respect and sensitivity," but reaffirmed the Catholic Church's teaching that marriage should be between one man and one woman.

Bishops Francis X. DiLorenzo of Richmond and Paul S. Loverde of Arlington issued the statement after a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, ruled 2-1 that Virginia's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional.

The bishops called the ruling "a fundamental misunderstanding of the intrinsic nature of marriage and is an injustice to Virginia voters."

In 2006, Virginians voted 57 percent to 43 percent to approve the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Virginia laws also prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.

U.S. Circuit Judge Henry F. Floyd said he recognized 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. Civil marriage is one of the cornerstones of our way of life," he said.

The ruling applies to the other states in the circuit, which include Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia. It could be put on hold while further appeals are heard, but it is likely that the issue eventually will be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Floyd was joined in his majority ruling by Judge Roger L. Gregory. Judge Paul V. Niemeyer dissented, calling the ruling "fundamentally flawed" in asserting that there is a constitutionally protected "fundamental right to marriage" and that the federal courts should be able to overstep elected state governments in regulating marriage.

Niemeyer called same-sex unions "a new notion (that) became incorporated into the traditional definition of marriage ... by linguistic manipulation." He also criticized the other judges for not considering the problems that redefining marriage could bring, "for example, why this broad right to marry, as the majority defines it, does not also encompass the 'right' of a father to marry his daughter or the 'right' of any person to marry multiple partners."

In their statement, the Virginia bishops said that by rejecting the state amendment, which affirms marriage as the unique institution between one man and one woman, the Court of Appeals seeks to redefine an age-old institution, rooted in natural law, and extend a right that does not -- and cannot -- exist between people of the same sex."

Bishops DiLorenzo and Loverde said that marriage has survived for countless generations because it uniquely benefits the common good by recognizing the union of two different but complementary individuals -- that is a man and a woman -- who, by their union, may create a family.

"Indeed, by its very nature this institution is ordered toward the regeneration and survival of the human race," they said. "For that reason Virginia's constitution rightly recognizes the unique contributions marriage -- the union of one man and one woman -- makes to children and to the common good."

The bishops said they will continue to affirm the truth about marriage, the lifelong union of one man and one woman, as well as the importance of marriage to the common good.

"As pastors, teachers and faith leaders, we can do nothing less," they said. "We will continue to fight this unjust ruling."

In response to Monday's ruling, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said he will not defend the state's constitutional amendment in four legal cases already pending in that state -- including a case in the western district, which covers much of the Diocese of Charlotte.

Cooper told reporters July 28 that he believes the 4th Circuit ruling is binding on North Carolina judges, but that he will wait for an "ultimate resolution" from the Supreme Court.

"Today, we know our law almost surely will be overturned as well," Cooper said. "Simply put, it is time to stop making arguments we will lose and instead move forward."

In 2012, North Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved, by a 3-to-2 margin, an amendment to the state constitution protecting the state's existing definition of marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman. At the time, supporters of the marriage amendment said the vote would help protect the state from any judge's ruling to allow gay "marriage."