Judge: Florida ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional

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Monroe County Circuit Judge Luis Garcia on July 17 ruled that the Florida amendment banning same-sex couples from marrying is unconstitutional.

Ruling in Huntsman v. Heavilin, Garcia wrote, "The court is aware that the majority of voters oppose same-sex marriage, but it is our country's proud history to protect the rights of the individual, the rights of the unpopular and the rights of the powerless, even at the cost of offending the majority. Whether it is ... when Nazi supremacists won the right to march in Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood; or when a black woman wanted to marry a white man in Virginia; or when black children wanted to go to an all-white school, the Constitution guarantees and protects ALL of its citizens from government interference with those rights."

The ruling from the judge was stayed until July 22, at which point same-sex couples in Monroe County can begin obtaining marriage licenses, unless another stay is requested by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and granted by the state court of appeals or Florida Supreme Court. Bondi was expected to appeal and request a stay.

Sarah Warbelow, of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a news release, "Today’s court ruling in Florida is further proof that America is ready for marriage equality nationwide. Unfortunately, same-sex couples in a majority of states still don’t have the right to marry, creating a confusing patchwork of marriage laws across the country. This is not only unsustainable, but it’s also unconstitutional."

ACLU of Florida LGBT rights staff attorney Daniel Tilley also responded to the ruling: "The ruling today is an important victory for thousands of loving couples in Florida. This is the beginning of the end of the marriage ban and of marriage discrimination in Florida. We congratulate Aaron and William on this important victory and look forward to celebrating the day that all Floridians can have their marriage to the person they love be honored by the state they call home."

Decision day rallies in Florida were pre-scheduled by the statewide LGBT civil rights group, Equality Florida.

Events took took place at:

• The Pride Center at Equality Park, 2040 North Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors, at 6 p.m.

• Unitarian Universalist Church, 13411 Shire Lane, Fort Myers, at 6 p.m.

• United Church of Gainesville, 1624 NW 5th Ave., Gainesville, at 6 p.m.

• The Hammered Lamb, 1235 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, at 6 p.m.

• Blue Fish, 3551 St Johns Ave., Jacksonville, at 6 p.m.

• Aqua Nightclub, 711 Duval St., Key West, at 6 p.m.

• Miami Beach LGBT Visitors Center, 1130 Washington Ave. - 1st Floor, Miami Beach, at 6 p.m.

• Celebration MCC, 3400 Radio Road, Unit 107, Naples, at 6 p.m.

• Marina Jack's, 2 Marina Plaza, Sarasota, at 6 p.m.

• King of Peace Metropolitan Community Church, 3150 5th Ave N., St Petersburg, at 6:30 p.m.

• Historic Florida Capitol, 400 S Monroe St, Tallahassee, at 6 p.m.

• Unity of Tampa, 3302 W. Horatio St, Tampa, at 6 p.m.

• Casa Mar Village, MM 81 Oceanside, Tavernier, at 6 p.m.

• Palm Beach County Courthouse, 205 North Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach, at 6 p.m.

Equality Florida, in a breaking news notice, emphasized that if there is no stay issued by July 22, same-sex couples can obtain marriage licenses in Monroe County, and they do not need to be a resident of the county. The ruling does not affect out-of-state marriages, which still are not recognized in Florida. And it is unclear whether same-sex marriages from Monroe County — which consists mostly of the Keys — would be recognized by the state.

The case was brought by Key West residents Aaron Hunstman and William Lee Jones. They are represented by Bernadette Restivo of the law firm Restivo, Reilly & Vigil-Farinas LLC.

Equality Florida's CEO, Nadine Smith, said, "This is a monumental step forward for Florida. Today’s historic ruling affirms what the majority of Florida residents already know to be true: All couples and their families deserve to be treated equally by their government."

Since last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal marriage ban in the Defense of Marriage Act, not one court has upheld amendments or laws barring same-sex couples from marrying.

Same-sex couples can marry in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Anti-gay marriage laws in the 31 other states are being challenged in the courts. There are several filed in Florida, where voters approved the anti-gay constitutional amendment in 2008.

The significance of the ruling was not lost on gay rights activist Calvin Lehman of Tampa, who remembers the fights over gay rights in the Sunshine State in the 1970s. That's when orange juice spokeswoman and singer Anita Bryant led a campaign to overturn Dade County's ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"My God, this day has been a long time coming," said Lehman, who hopes to marry his partner of 37 years in Florida.