MIAMI - A Florida circuit judge legalized gay marriage in Florida's most gay-friendly county on Thursday, siding with same-sex couples in the Florida Keys who said the state's ban is discriminatory and makes them second-class citizens.
The ruling applies only to Monroe County and was immediately appealed. The lawsuit contends that the same-sex marriage ban approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2008 violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.
Judge Luis M. Garcia, appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2000 and re-elected twice since then, said same-sex couples could get marriage licenses as early as Tuesday.
But Attorney General Pam Bondi said Florida has sole authority to define marriage within the state, and that the voters' will must be respected. The referendum amended Florida's constitution to define marriage as a union solely between one man and one woman.
Bondi's immediate notice of appeal creates an automatic stay that likely puts any same-sex marriage licenses on hold well past Tuesday, according to her office.
In his ruling, the judge invoked other moments in American history when the courts had to step in to guarantee the civil rights of minorities.
"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. "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."
"It hit us a little bit by surprise," said attorney Bernadette Restivo, who filed the suit on behalf of Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, a couple for 11 years. "But it's very well written ... a thorough analysis of the argument, so we couldn't be happier."
Florida has long been a battleground over gay rights. In the 1970s, singer and orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant led a successful campaign to overturn a Dade County ordinance that banned discrimination against gays. The county commission reinstated the ban two decades later.
In 1977, Florida also became the only state that prohibited all gay people from adopting children. A state court judge threw out the law in 2008, finding "no rational basis" for the ban and approving the adoption of two young brothers by gay rights activist Martin Gill and his male partner. The state decided two years later not to appeal that ruling, making gay adoption legal.
But the Keys are culturally far removed Anita Bryant's Florida. Huntsman and Jones met a gay pride celebration in Key West, where gays and lesbians have found a haven in the easygoing, live-and-let-live atmosphere. Their lawyer said the couple would be celebrating on Duval Street Thursday night.
Several Democratic politicians, including gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, had nothing but praise for the judge's decision. "This is a great step toward equality in Florida," Crist said via Twitter.
Gay marriage opponents condemned it: "This disrespects just under 5 million voters and effectively disenfranchises them. It shows no regard for the rule of law or the constitution," said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, which led the referendum campaign.
The voters should decide this issue, he said. The ban passed with nearly 62 percent support in 2008, and a repeal 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.
Gay marriage proponents have won more than 20 legal decisions against state marriage limits since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, although those rulings remain in various stages of appeal. Many legal experts say the justices in Washington may ultimately have to decide the question for all states.
Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.
During a recent hearing on another challenge in neighboring Miami-Dade County, attorneys for gay couples noted that, after a long legal fight, the state finally allowed them to adopt children. But the parents of these children still can't be recognized 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 ban didn't focus on whether same-sex marriages are harmful or beneficial. Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalition, said it was simply wrong for a single judge to overrule the will of the majority.
"The people of the state have the right to decide," Verdugo said.
A third challenge, pending in federal court in Tallahassee, would force Florida to allow gay marriage and recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
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