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Eight gay and lesbian couples sue Florida in federal court to recognize their legal marriages (updated)

BY STEVE ROTHAUS
SROTHAUS@MIAMIHERALD.COM

Eight same-sex Florida couples who legally married elsewhere in the United States have gone to federal court to demand the Sunshine State recognize their unions.

The suit, filed in Tallahassee late Wednesday by the ACLU, the ACLU of Florida and the Podhurst Orseck law firm of Miami, challenges “Florida’s refusal to recognize” the marriages of eight same-sex couples. Those 16 plaintiffs are joined by SAVE, South Florida’s leading LGBT-rights group.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Surgeon General and Health Secretary John Armstrong and Department of Management Services Secretary Craig Nichols are named as defendants. The plaintiffs held a news conference Thursday morning to announce details of the lawsuit.

“Our historic victory in last year’s Supreme Court case striking down DOMA (the federal Defense of Marriage Act) means that many loving and committed Floridians have marriages that are recognized by the federal government,” said Howard Simon, executive direcor of the ACLU of Florida. “Sadly, Florida refuses to recognize those marriages, often at significant cost to their families. The time has come for Florida to end its discrimination against same sex couples, including those whose marriages are legally recognized elsewhere in our country and by the federal government.”

“This is the other shoe of Windsor,” said Simon, referring to the 2013 Supreme Court decision that forced the federal government to recognize married same-sex couples. In that case, Edith Windsor, the elderly widow of Thea Spyer, successfully sued the U.S. government to claim estate-tax exemption for surviving spouses.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Section 3 of the 1995 federal Defense of Marriage Act, a provision that prevented the U.S. government from recognizing marriages like Windsor’s. It did not address Section 2 — the portion that allows states including Florida to not recognize legal same-sex unions. Seventeen states, including California, Iowa, Massachusetts and New York, along with the District of Columbia, now marry gay and lesbian couples.

“All around the country, loving couples enjoy the rights and responsibilities that come with a marriage fully recognized by their state, and it’s time Florida couples enjoyed that as well,” SAVE Executive Director Tony Lima said. “Why should couples who commit to love and care for one another lose protections for that relationship when they return to Florida?”

ACLU staff attorney Daniel Tilley said “the state’s refusal to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the United States Constitution.”

“We’re making claims that this is discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, on the basis of sex and that also violates the fundamental right to marry, which the Supreme Court has recognized for decades,” he said.

The lawsuit was filed in the federal court’s Northern District where a similar case was filed Feb. 28 by Jacksonville attorneys representing James Domer Brenner and Charles Dean Jones of Tallahassee.

Nationally, the ACLU filed a similar suit last month in Missouri.

Also in February, a federal judge ordered Kentucky to recognize same-sex marriages performed out of state. Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said he wouldn’t appeal the case because “I would be defending discrimination. That I will not do.”

Gov. Steve Beshear said his state would hire outside attorneys to appeal.

Scott and Bondi have not said whether they will defend this new case.

“Governor Scott 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,” spokesman John Tupps wrote the Miami Herald.

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.

In January, six same-sex couples and Equality Florida, the state’s largest LGBT-rights group, sued Miami-Dade County Clerk Harvey Ruvin after his office declined to issue the men and women marriage licenses. That case, assigned to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel, is pending.

The state has remained silent on the Miami-Dade lawsuit. Attorney General Bondi has said that she would be willing to join the lawsuit, on behalf of the county, if asked, but she has not been asked. The state’s silence led conservative activists in Orlando and Miami to file a motion defending Florida’s marriage amendment.

“The cases complement each other well,” said Miami Beach attorney Elizabeth Schwartz, who is working on the Miami-Dade right-to-marry lawsuit. “Like our brave plaintiffs, these are fantastic couples who are standing up for their love. We wish them success.”

The plaintiffs behind the latest federal suit include a lesbian couple from Palm Beach County.

Palm Beach Gardens firefighter Sloan Grimsley and her wife, Joyce Albu, a consultant who works with parents of children with developmental disorders, have been together nine years and were married August 2011 in New York. They have several young children and worry that if Grimsley was killed on the job, Albu would not receive support normally given to spouses of first responders who die in the line of duty.

“I’m proud of the work that I do protecting my community, but the law in Florida doesn’t let me protect my own family,” Grimsley said. “We just want the peace of mind of knowing that those vows we took to care for one another aren’t dependent on where we are.”

The other seven couples suing the state of Florida:

• Lindsay Myers, a radio digital-content producer, and Sarah Humlie, executive director of the Pensacola Humane Society. They married in Washington, D.C., in December 2012.

• Chuck Hunziger and Bob Collier of Broward, military veterans who have been together more than 50 years. In July 2013, they married in New York.

• Juan Del Hierro, director of Ministry Empowerment for Unity on the Bay, and teacher Thomas Gantt Jr., who live in Miami. They married in Washington, D.C., in 2010 and now have a 15-month-old son, Lucas.

“Being a parent really changed our perspective a lot. We wanted our marriage recognized prior, but it gave us a sense of urgency,” Gantt said. “We’re giving [Lucas] protections if something were to happen to us. He’s going to be going to school eventually. Bullying exists. If our marriage is legally recognized, it does send a message to everyone, families and kids, that he has two dads and it shouldn’t be an issue.”

Gannt said he and Del Hierro have spent thousand of dollars in attorney fees to protect themselves legally. “This year were were finally able to file our taxes together. That was a huge savings,” Gantt said. “That’s where the dichotomy exists. You can file your federal taxes together, but then you can’t possible get medical coverage as a couple here in Florida.”

• Political consultant Christian Ulvert, board chair of SAVE, and media director Carlos Andrade, who in July 2013 married in Washington, D.C.

Ulvert, a former state legislative worker, said he has been unable to add Andrade as a benefits beneficiary.

“Trying to name my husband Carlos as a beneficiary, they told me the state of Florida does not recognize same-sex couples, so I would either have to name someone else or forego having a beneficiary,” Ulvert said. “I don’t have a beneficiary right now.”

• Family law attorney Richard Milstein and Miami-Dade schoolteacher Eric Hankin of Miami, have been together 12 years. In March 2010, they married in Iowa.

• Miami-Dade Public Schools counselor Robert Loupo and retiree John Fitzgerald, who have been together 12 years. They married in November in New York.

“I just want this suit to acknowledge that the love we share is equal to anybody else’s love,” Fitzgerald said. “That love is love, it doesn’t matter who you love. We should be accepted for our love, just as much as anybody else is.”

• Denise Hueso, a clinical care coordinator at the Alliance for LGBT Youth, and Sandra Jean Newson, a vice president at an agency to provide housing for formerly homeless people, who have a 15-year-old adopted son with cerebral palsy, Jansil.

Together 17 years, Hueso and Newson married in 2009 in Massachusetts. They lived in that state a short time, then returned to South Florida where they met and their families still lived.

Last year, Newson had brain-stem surgery at Baptist Health South Florida. Several times, hospital employees questioned the women’s marital relationship, she said.

“It was the morning of surgery, the last thing I needed at that moment was to have to debate the merits of my marriage,” Newson said. “I needed my wife with me. I didn’t need to debate with the clerk whether or not we had any right to be together.”

Newson said the 2008 Florida amendment should be overturned as discriminatory.

“I don’t think anyone has the right to vote on other people’s rights. I don’t think people have the right to vote on my basic rights,” Newson said. “I didn’t have a chance to vote on theirs. If they want me to, I will, but I don’t think it’s my right to vote on their life, either.”

Grimsley and Albu v. Scott et al. Complaint

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