MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) - A Monroe County judge, on Thursday, overturned Florida's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage after a legal challenge by gay couples said the ban effectively made them second-class citizens.
Circuit Judge Luis M. Garcia said same-sex couples could get marriage licenses as early as Tuesday in Monroe County, but Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi said the voters' will must be respected.
An overwhelming majority approved a constitutional amendment in 2008 that defines marriage as a union solely between one man and one woman. Her notice of appeal creates an automatic stay that prevents any same-sex marriage licenses from being issued, her office said
The lawsuit contended that the same-sex marriage ban approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2008 violated the federal 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law. The judge said licenses could not be issued until Tuesday at the earliest.
In Key West, the couple who filed the lawsuit, celebrated with friends tonight, thrilled at the judge's ruling expressed feelings of joy over the judge's decision.
"It's been 11 years in the coming," said Lee Jones. "And I finally get to marry the man I've always wanted to."
Jones and Aaron Huntsman met in 2003 and had a commitment ceremony the following year, but wanted to make it legal. "We had our commitment ceremony in Las Vegas," explained Huntsman, "that still was not recognized, but we felt in God's eyes we had been married this whole time."
The couple says the judge's decision isn't surprising, but exactly how it will all play out remains to be seen.
Attorney General Pam Bondi and ban supporters argued that the referendum vote should be respected and that Florida has sole authority to define marriage in the state. The Florida amendment defined marriage solely as a union between one man and one woman.
Bondi has already filed a notice of appeal. A statement from her office read, "With many similar cases pending throughout the entire country, finality on this constitutional issue must come from the U.S. Supreme Court."
"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," Garcia wrote in his decision. "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."
Gay marriage proponents have won more than 20 legal decisions around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, although most of those rulings remain in various stages of appeal. Many legal experts say the U.S. Supreme Court may ultimately have to decide the question for all states.
Florida has long been a gay rights battleground. In the 1970s, singer and orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant successfully campaigned to overturn a Dade County ordinance banning discrimination against gays. The county commission reinstated those protections two decades later.
In 1977, Florida became the only state prohibiting all gay people from adopting children. A state court judge threw out that law in 2008, finding "no rational basis" for that ban, and two years later, the state decided not to appeal, making gay adoption legal.
Gay marriage opponents said Thursday's ruling disenfranchises nearly five million voters — the 62 percent who approved the marriage ban. Repealing the amendment would require at least 60 percent support.
"They do not have a consensus of Floridians, so they're trying to go to the courts for a quick fix. If they're going to do it, that would be the appropriate way to do — take it to the people again with another amendment. They deliberately passed on that strategy because they know that Floridians by and large support marriage between a man and a woman," Stemberger said.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott's office attempted to straddle the issue in a statement late Thursday, saying he "supports traditional marriage, consistent with the amendment approved by Florida voters in 2008, but does not believe that anyone should be discriminated against for any reason."
His Democratic challenger Charlie Crist had nothing but praise, calling the ruling "a great step toward equality in Florida" via Twitter.
Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.
During a recent hearing on a related Florida case in Miami-Dade County, attorneys for gay couples noted that, after a long legal fight, the state finally allowed them to adopt children but refused to recognize them as married.
"That inequality stigmatizes the couples and their children as second-class citizens," attorney Sylvia Walbolt said. "Same-sex marriages are completely beneficial. They are entitled to the full protection of the Constitution."
Supporters of the gay marriage ban focused mainly on the 2008 referendum vote rather than whether same-sex marriages were harmful or beneficial. Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalition, said it was wrong for a single judge to overrule the will of a majority vote.
"The people of the state have the right to decide," Verdugo said.
Along with the similar lawsuit pending in Miami-Dade, a separate lawsuit is pending in a federal court in Tallahassee seeking to force Florida to allow gay marriage and recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
The amendment Garcia overturned Thursday was passed by a 62-38 margin in 2008 and banned both same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships.
The ruling is already getting support on Miami Beach.
"Great, I think people should have equal opportunity," said Igor Matkovic.
Lanzer Robinson added, "Our country is going toward equality and across the board we have to be fair."
For Huntsman and Jones, the hope is their case will make an impact.
"It means all our friends who have been going out-of-state to get married can be recognized in the state," said Jones. "And also you can be proud of who you are because love is love you can hold your head high and be proud," added Huntsman.
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