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Miami judge approves early start to Florida's gay weddings

Published:Tuesday | January 6, 2015 | 12:00 AM

A local judge provided a jump-start yesterday to Florida's entry as the 36th state where gays and lesbians can legally marry, saying she saw no reason why same-sex couples couldn't immediately get their licences in Miami-Dade County ahead of a midnight launch statewide.

The addition of Florida's 19.9 million people means 70 per cent of Americans will now live in states where gay marriage is legal.

It also reflects how much the nation's third-largest state has changed since the days of Anita Bryant, the former beauty pageant queen and orange juice spokeswoman who started her national campaign against gay rights in Miami in the 1970s.

The courtroom erupted in cheers when Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel cleared the way for a gay couple and a lesbian couple to marry. The judge said she would perform the ceremonies herself later that day, according to their attorney, Jeffrey Cohen.

"Miami-Dade must be at the forefront," said Cohen. "These plaintiffs have waited long enough."

The first same-sex marriage licence officially issued in Florida went to a pair of women who never expected to make history. Deborah Shure and Aymarah Robles said they attended the hearing in Zabel's courtroom and then went down to get their licence, expecting a line. They were the first ones there.

"We don't really think of it as being first. We're just happy for everyone here," said Robles, who plans a low-key wedding today.

Other same-sex marriages were expected to happen around the state after midnight, when United States District Judge Robert L. Hinkle's ruling, covering all 67 counties, was set to take effect. Both judges found that the same-sex wedding ban in Florida's constitution violates the guarantees of equal treatment and due process enshrined in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.

The court decisions have thrilled gay and lesbian couples in Florida.

"It means that we're no different than any other couple in the US," said Bill Munette, a realtor in Pinellas County who had a commitment ceremony with his partner in March of 2000.

Large-scale ceremonies in Orlando, Tampa, Key West, and Broward County were planned for today. Others planned to take their time.

"We want to do it right," said Munette, who is 48, and is planning a March 2016 wedding with his 55-year-old partner, Robb Schoonmaker.

"We don't want to rush to get it done. We're planning it just like any normal couple would."




But while the news was largely met with cheers or even shrugs from Florida's more liberal enclaves such as South Florida and St Petersburg, signs of opposition to the rulings were evident farther north, where more conservative Floridians live.

In Jacksonville, Duval County Court Clerk Ronnie Fussell shut down the courthouse chapel, saying no marriage ceremonies - either gay or straight - would be allowed there. At least two other counties in northeast Florida did the same.

"Mr Fussell said some of his people felt a little uncomfortable doing it," said Charlie Broward, a spokesman for the clerk. "It could cause discriminations down there (in the marriage licence department) with those who are uncomfortable. We wanted to eliminate any unfairness."

Florida's northern counties may see an influx of licence applications by same-sex couples from other southern states where marriage bans remain in place. Sean Hudson, a spokesman for the state clerks' association, said he was unaware of any clerk that didn't plan to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples seeking them, although several have said they won't do any more weddings for anyone.

"That's not a statutory duty of theirs," said Hudson, referring to the ceremonies. "The clerks are going to do what their duty is."

Florida's constitution was amended to ban same-sex marriages in 2008 by voters who approved it by a 60 per cent margin. But judges in Florida found it discriminatory, mirroring decisions in many other states.

And even as gays and lesbians get marriage licences, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has appeals pending in state and federal courts, seeking to uphold the state's ban. Bondi's position - one shared by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, now considering a run for president - is that marriage should be defined by each state.


Not giving up


Opponents of same-sex marriage in Florida weren't giving up without a fight.

Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group based in the Orlando area, planned to file complaints in several counties yesterday in an effort to block clerks from issuing licences to same-sex couples, said the group's lawyer, Horatio 'Harry' Mihet.

The group already tried to block Osceola County's clerk in a complaint filed on behalf of Florida Family Action, Inc, but that advocacy group's case was dismissed last week. A similar case is pending in Orange County.

Mihet still hopes for success in the courts and said, "the fact that some clerks may issue licences against the law doesn't obviate any of the appeals."

The state's first weddings were set to happen in the same county where, 38 years ago, Bryant successfully campaigned to overturn a Dade County ordinance banning discrimination against gays. The county commission reinstated those protections two decades later.