BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
"Today, we’re launching Get Engaged, the statewide call to action with the goal of securing the freedom to marry right here in Florida. As the entire country is awaiting the Supreme Court ruling, it’s time for everyone who believes in equality and fairness to take a clear stand on the right side of history," said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, the state's largest gay-rights group.
"Florida’s changed dramatically since 2008, when just over 60 percent of voters embedded marriage discrimination into the constitution. In fact, Florida is a leader in the south, with 54 percent of voters in support of marriage for same-sex couples. In fact, only 23 percent of Floridians now oppose gay couples having all the rights and benefits of marriage," Smith said.
Five years ago, just under 62 percent of Florida voters passed Amendment 2, which defined marriage as a union only between one man and one woman, and also banned civil unions. Sixty percent of Florida voters would need to repeal the constitutional ban.
Public Policy Polling, which surveyed 500 Florida voters from March 15-18, found 75 percent in support of either gay marriage or civil unions. Among Democrats, 48 percent support gay marriage, the Miami Herald reported in April.
A poll released by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found 54 percent of Florida voters favor same-sex marriage. Nationwide, a Washington Post-ABC poll found more than 80 percent of voters under 30 favor same-sex marriage.
Smith said it was too soon to determine whether her group would attempt to repeal Amendment 2 at the polls in 2014.
"When we look around the country and we see where we have succeeded in securing marriage equality, all of those campaigns, whether they were at the ballot or through the legislature, began with shifting public opinion. And that’s the heart of this campaign, where everyday Floridians, celebrities, elected leaders, all stand up and make their support absolutely clear," she said.
John Stemberger, who ran the 2008 Amendment 2 campaign from his Orlando law firm, said he doesn't see Get Engaged "as a serious effort or serious threat to the existing law.
“There’s not much that can be done. The people of Florida have spoken in an active, direct democracy, in a supermajority, and have codified the amendment into Florida law," Stemberger said. "We would love to engage in some kind of discourse. To the extent that the polls have been moving against us, it’s because we haven’t had the opportunity to air our arguments in the public square. I would love to see some kind of formal debate or panel discussion that’s civil, in a neutral setting, without people ganging up screaming at you."
Anthony Verdugo of the Christian Family Coalition in Miami-Dade County took a cautious view of the Get Engaged campaign.
"In 2008, Florida voters overwhelmingly voted to enhance Florida's constitution to protect the freedom to marry and respect marriage as the union of one man, one woman,” Verdugo said in an email to the Miami Herald. “We welcome the opportunity to continue to engage, inform and educate our broad and diverse constituency on the important issue of respect for marriage. Today's announcement of this campaign gives us that opportunity."
It is legal for same-sex couples to marry in 11 states, plus Washington, D.C. On July 1, Delaware will become the 12th state.
Any day, the Supreme Court will announce whether it will toss a portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the part that prohibits the federal government from recognizing legal same-sex marriages performed in and out of the United States.
"While to path to marriage equality in Florida is not yet certain -- we‘ve got to see precisely what the Supreme Court rules, we do know that we’re not content to wait. We intend to win marriage and we believe that no matter what strategy emerges, that this campaign begins right now with a clear-called action for Floridians to be visibly on the side of the freedom to marry."
Smith stressed that even if the Supreme Court requires the federal government to recognize legal marriages between same-sex couples, they still won't be allowed to wed in Florida.
It is also unclear whether couples legally married in places like New York or Massachusetts will receive federal benefits if they live in states like Florida.
"To be clear, no one knows what the Supreme Court is going to do," Smith said. "A lot of very smart people that watch the Supreme Court tell us that it’s going to be a mixed bag, that we shouldn't hold out any hope for an absolute grand-slam home run that eliminates all the state bans as well as toppling the federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act."
Sue Fulton, born and raised in Stuart, Fla., was among the first class of women to graduate West Point. Last year, she and her longtime partner, Penelope Gnesin, became the first same-sex couple to marry in the chapel at West Point.
"I don’t currently live in the state of Florida. My partner of 18 years would be a legal stranger to me in Florida. Most of my family remains in the state. But I’m not here to talk about me. I’m here to talk about our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guard members and what they face," Fulton said. "Even after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, they’re still in a situation where their partners, their spouses get no medical care or housing. They don’t get to relocate with their service member. They can’t get on base. They can’t get ID cards. They can’t pick up the kids at the base day care or pick the service member up at the hospital after knee surgery, or shop in the commissary."
Fulton, who lives with Gnesin in Asbury Park, N.J., said gay and lesbian service members suffer because the Veteran's Administration does not recognize same-sex marriages.
"They can fly off to New York and get married, but when they come back to Florida, the Veteran's Administration does not view them as married," she said. "They don't get their GI bill benefits, the dependent educational assistance, the healthcare, they don't have the right to be buried beside their spouse in a military cemetery. The Supreme Court may overturn [part of] DOMA and it will be a good day if that happens, but veterans and service members in the state of Florida, as long as Florida doesn't recognize those marriages, remain in a situation that to my mind is disrespectful to our service."