Scroll below to read Monroe County Chief Circuit Judge Luis Garcia’s decision
BY STEVE ROTHAUS AND DAVID SMILEY
Monroe County Chief Circuit Judge Luis Garcia overturned Florida’s 2008 constitutional gay-marriage ban on Thursday, and ordered that two Key West bartenders and other gay couples seeking to wed be allowed to marry.
The judge -- overjoying gay rights advocates and outraging opponents of same-sex marriage -- ordered the Monroe County Clerk’s Office to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples Tuesday morning.
“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 rights of the powerless, even at the cost of offending the majority,” Garcia wrote in his opinion, released about 1 p.m. Thursday.
The judge gave the clerk’s office several days to prepare “in consideration of... anticipated rise in activity.”
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi swiftly announced she would appeal Garcia’s ruling to the Third District Court of Appeal. Her office issued a statement, saying that “with many similar cases pending throughout the entire country, finality on this constitutional issue must come from the U.S. Supreme Court.”
By filing a notice of appeal, Bondi triggered an automatic stay in the case, meaning that Garcia’s ruling is put on hold. If the stay is lifted before Tuesday, any same-sex couple can travel to the Keys that day and receive a marriage license at the county clerk’s office.
Garcia’s decision applies only to Monroe County, because it was filed in front of a state judge who has jurisdiction only in the county where he sits. A judge in Miami-Dade County has yet to rule in a similar case.
Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, who met at a gay pride celebration and have been a couple for 11 years, sued Monroe County Clerk Amy Heavilin in April for a marriage license, saying Florida’s ban violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. They told The Miami Herald Thursday that they’re “ecstatic.”
“I can’t believe it finally happened,” said Jones. “Love is love. It doesn’t matter if it’s a guy and woman or two women or two men. Love is love.”
In response to the ruling, gay rights advocates began planning parties from Key West to Tallahassee. Conservatives vowed to fight on to uphold the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman.
Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalion, called the ruling a “corrupt decision,” and a judicial lynching of nearly 8 million Florida voters” who voted to ban same-sex marriage in 2008.
John Stemberger, who led that campaign to define marriage in Florida as being between one man and one woman, said he would keep fighting.
“This is an issue worth dying for,” he said. “Every domestic partnership, every single civil union, every couple that cohabitates, these arrangements dilute and devalue marriage.”
Stemberger said he wasn’t “daunted” by Garcia’s ruling, nor was he surprised.
“The court was very hostile to our position,” said Stemberger, president and general counsel of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council in Orlando. “This is a very sad day for Floridians. This is an entirely illegitimate process. The judge had no legal authority in this decision.”
Florida’s Democratic Party embraced the ruling.
“As we have seen time and time again over the last few months, when marriage equality bans are challenged in the courts, love wins,” Party Chair Allison Tant said in a statement. “This is a tremendous victory for LGBT Floridians in Monroe County, and we look forward to soon celebrating full marriage equality across the state.”
Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist followed with his own statement: “Today was a great step towards equality in Florida. It is my hope that Governor Scott and Attorney General [Pam] Bondi will accept the decision of the judge and allow all Florida adults to marry the person they love.”
The Monroe case mirrors the suit in Miami-Dade, in which six same-sex couples and LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida Institute sued County Clerk Harvey Ruvin for the right to marry. In both cases, Florida Assistant Attorney General Adam Tanenbaum argued that the judges should not dismiss Florida’s constitutional gay marriage ban, which passed in 2008 with the support of 62 percent of voters. The state, citing a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, contended that the definition of marriage belongs exclusively to the state and is exempt from federal scrutiny.
“It remains for this court simply to respect the policy decision made by voters,” Tanenbaum told Garcia at a hearing for summary judgment on July 7 in Plantation Key.
But in his ruling, Garcia rejected the state’s position, saying changes in society and case law have made same-sex marriage a federal question.
“This court concludes that a citizen’s right to marry is a fundamental right that belongs to the individual,” Garcia wrote.
In Miami-Dade, Judge Sarah Zabel has yet to rule on whether to allow the plaintiffs to wed or go to trial in their suit against Clerk Harvey Ruvin. The six couples are Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello of Coconut Grove; Dr. Juan Carlos Rodriguez and David Price of Davie; Vanessa and Melanie Alenier of Hollywood; Todd and Jeff Delmay of Hollywood; Summer Greene and Pamela Faerber of Plantation; and Don Price Johnston and Jorge Isaias Diaz of Miami.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Elizabeth Schwartz, said she’s filing Garcia’s decision with Zabel so that she can consider the opinion. She called the ruling “another nail in the coffin of Florida’s unfair marriage ban.”
“We are hopeful we will see a similar ruling by Zabel very soon,” said Schwartz.
The gay-marriage battle is being waged across the nation. A federal judge last week ruled Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. According to the group Freedom to Marry, LGBT advocates have won 23 times in federal, state and appellate courts since June 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a key portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
Last year, Supreme Court justices determined the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages, but did not address whether state marriage bans are legal.
Conservative activists in Florida, who campaigned six years ago for the constitutional gay marriage ban, have fought to keep it in place.
The groups were not allowed to join the Miami-Dade and Monroe cases as defendants. Instead, Garcia and Zabel allowed them to speak as friends of the court.
“The plaintiffs’ argument with regard to same-sex marriage has no boundaries,” Mathew Staver, founder of the conservative Liberty Counsel, told Garcia. “The plaintiffs’ argument is not to just redefine marriage to include two people of the same sex, the implications of that is if you include two people of the same sex, then why can’t you have a person of the opposite sex, that also brings in a same-sex partner into the marriage.”
On Thursday, Jones called Staver’s comments -- including a legal argument that included a graphic written description of heterosexual and homosexual sex acts -- “very hateful and very hurtful.” His attorney, Elena Vigil-Fariñas, said in court that Staver’s legal argument — which included a graphic written description of heterosexual and homosexual sex acts — “embarrassed” her.
“I’m embarrassed to have a member of the bar write something like this as an excuse to support the bigotry of the voters of Florida,” Vigil-Fariñas said. “Because in his mind, this court should allow mob rule. If the majority — the one that has the most money, the one that has the most position — don’t like a certain segment of society like our friends over here, they get to rule. And you don’t get to even evaluate whether it’s even constitutional.”
Vigil-Fariñas, who argued the case with law partner Bernadette Restivo, asked the judge, “What would this state be like if we allowed mob rule?”
“Today, it’s against Aaron and Lee. Tomorrow it could be against me. I wasn’t born here,” added Vigil-Fariñas, who is from Cuba.
After the hearing, Staver seemed outraged that Tanenbaum spoke for about five minutes at each of the South Florida hearings, and never actually argued in favor of the gay marriage ban.
Staver said Tanenbaum’s boss, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, “is giving only window dressing to the Florida Marriage Amendment.”
If Bondi “does not want to present a vigorous defense, she owes it to the voters of Florida to step down and allow someone else to represent the interests of the State,” Staver said in a news release.
Miami Herald reporter Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.