BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Six same-sex couples on Tuesday sued in Miami-Dade circuit court for the right to marry in Florida, once again thrusting the Sunshine State into the national gay-rights spotlight.
“We are proud to stand here on this historic day,” said Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, the state’s leading gay-rights group. “We are proud to stand here with these brave couples who have stepped up to protect their families and challenge the law in our state. For everyone who stands here today, there are thousands whose families are denied the dignity and protections that marriage provides.
“We stand here for those who have applied for marriage licenses and face the humiliation of being denied. We stand here for the children of couples who want to know why there parents aren’t permitted to get married the way their classmates’ parents are.”
The South Florida couples suing to marry are Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello; Dr. Juan Carlos Rodriguez and David Price; Vanessa and Melanie Alenier; Todd and Jeff Delmay; Summer Greene and Pamela Faerber; and Don Price Johnston and Jorge Isaias Diaz. Equality Florida Institute is also a plaintiff.
“We stand before you today for one simple reason,” said Pareto of Coconut Grove, beside her partner, Arguello, at the LGBT Visitor Center in South Beach. “We want to marry each other here in our state, but we can’t because the freedom to marry isn’t available to us. Carla and I share a beautiful life together. We have an amazing son together. We’ve built a successful business together. We share our finances together. We go to church together. We serve our community together. Our respective families have fully integrated. But in the eyes of the law, we are legal strangers.”
The 12 plaintiffs are represented by the law firm Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, attorney Elizabeth F. Schwartz, attorney Mary B. Meeks and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR).
According to the 21-page filing, which names Miami-Dade County Clerk Harvey Ruvin as defendant, the plaintiffs “allege that Florida’s categorical exclusion of all same-sex couples from marriage deny same-sex couples, including the plaintiff couples, and their families the fundamental rights, dignity, and equality guaranteed to all persons by the United States Constitution.”
Florida has never granted same-sex couples the right to marry. In 2008, nearly 62 percent of voters amended the state constitution to ban gay marriage, along with recognition of legal same-sex marriages performed elsewhere and domestic partnerships.
"Sixty two percent of Floridians have decisively spoken on this issue. Gay activists cannot win in the marketplace, so they have resorted to trying to find renegade courts who have little respect for the rule of law to create social change that would never happen through the people or their elected representatives,” said John Stemberger, president and general counsel of Orlando-based Florida Family Policy Council, which led the movement in 2008 to pass Florida’s anti-gay marriage Amendment 2.
In a news release Tuesday, Stemberger said the lawsuit “is nothing more than a publicity stunt.”
“Filed in Miami, it represents ‘forum shopping’ in the most liberal legal venue in the state,” he said. “However, we are confident that Florida's Attorney General Pam Bondi will provide a vigorous defense of Florida's long held law and in doing so will expose the radical views and overreaching legal positions set forth in today's lawsuit.”
Bondi’s office said Tuesday it had not yet seen the lawsuit, which arrives in an election year.
Gov. Rick Scott has indicated he supports the gay-marriage ban. Democratic challenger and former state Sen. Nan Rich has always supported gay marriage.
And Democrat Charlie Crist —who as the Republican governor in 2008 supported the ban —now sides with Rich and wants the constitutional amendment repealed.
"No one would want to be told they can’t marry the person they love. It’s an issue of fairness and I’m proud to support it," Crist said in a statement issued after the suit was announced.
Gay activists acknowledge they suffered a major setback in 2008, but they believe public opinion is changing. A March 2013 survey by Public Policy Polling found 75 percent of Florida voters favor allowing gay people either to marry (38 percent) or to have civil unions (37 percent).
“What’s happened over that time period is a real awakening by most people in Florida to the humanity of lesbian and gay people and their families,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a San Francisco-based legal group helping assist the South Florida plaintiffs.
“Those families have been so much more visible and present, not just in the news but in people’s everyday lives," he said. "As people have gotten to know these couples and their children, the fear factor has diminished greatly. There’s just been in our whole country, including Florida, a kind of collective realization that these really are families pretty much like other families and they need the same kinds of protections.”
Liberal and LGBT activists have also been buoyed by recent court decisions supporting same-sex couples’ right to marry.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck part of the 1993 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which banned the federal government from recognizing gay marriages. Justices did not decide DOMA’s Section 2, which allows states to not recognize legal marriages performed elsewhere. Also, federal judges in Utah and Oklahoma have ruled since December that same-sex couples could marry.
“That really changes the landscape enormously and lays a very strong foundation for courts and other places to draw upon,” Minter said.
Schwartz, a Miami Beach family attorney and estate planner, said she expects the Florida lawsuit to take years to wind its way through the court system.
“The county has 30 days to respond to us. They could file a motion to dismiss, but we expect they’ll answer the complaint. And we’re off to the races,” she said. “It’s a lawsuit like any other, potentially with evidence and hearings and we hope that the judge will rule favorably. We expect that whoever loses will probably appeal.”
Minter has long-time experience in Florida, where NCLR helped fight the state’s 33-year ban against gays adopting, which ended in 2010.
“Florida has often been on the cutting edge for civil rights issues and protections for the south, culturally and politically. An influential state,” he said. “What happens in Florida really matters, not only for the folks here, but across the whole country.”
More than 1,000 couples volunteered to be part of the lawsuit. Six were chosen.
“We wanted folks who could just be representative of the community and who were in different life situations. One of our couples is dealing with aging issues. We wanted to show couples raising children. One of our couples has grandchildren. They work in all different fields. They’re culturally diverse,” Minter said.
Diaz and Johnston of Miami said they’ve known each other four years, began dating a year ago and decided to marry in December.
“Once we got engaged, we were thinking about where to get married and what our next step would be. Both of us were really disappointed that we couldn’t get married here, since we were born and raised here and we have a lot of ties to the community,” said Diaz, younger brother of former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. “This goes to the very heart of what Cubans identify with, which is the removal of rights or the ostracizing of any particular group. In that respect, they can certainly identify with our issue, regardless of what their stance is on us being a man and man together.”
The former Jeff Delsol and Todd May already live as if they’re married. Before their son Blake was born four years ago, they legally changed their surnames to a blend of both: Delmay.
“When we found out we were going to be dads, immediately we decided to change our names so we could have the same name, so we could be as married as we could be,” Jeff said.
The Aleniers of Hollywood have been together eight years and are raising a son. They want to marry here and not have to travel to Washington, D.C., New York, California or one of the other 15 states where gay marriage is already legal.
“Florida is our home and we have been waiting to get married. We don’t want to go to another state,” Melanie said. “When we heard there might be an opportunity coming up to help change things in Florida and be married in Florida and be a part of making that change, we were all over it.”
Vanessa said she and Melanie are proud to represent gay and lesbian couples in Florida. “Being public is a good thing,” she said. “It’s a good thing for all of us to be public about it and be very open as to who we are, to change the hearts and minds of people around us, and people who love us.”
Greene grew up in Miami Beach and was in her early 20s during the 1977 Anita Bryant era, when 70 percent of voters repealed the county’s newly passed gay rights ordinance. South Florida became a focal point for gay rights and it took 21 years for Miami-Dade County to restore the ordinance.
“It was a rather scary time for me,” said Greene, who has been partnered for decades with Faerber.
“For the past 25 years, we had to jump through hoops to accomplish what a married couple already had at their disposal just by saying ‘I do.’ You’re talking about health surrogacy, you’re talking about responsibilities of raising your daughter, going into the public school system, being an advocate for her. We’ve been advocates for our grandchildren,” said Greene of Plantation. “We’ve had to be advocates for them. It’s really awkward when you’re sitting in the room and someone is saying, ‘OK, you’re Gina’s grandmother, now who are you?’ If we were married we wouldn’t have to be jumping through these extra hoops.”
Miami Herald political writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.