MIAMI (AP) — A judge in the Florida Keys overturned the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on Thursday after a legal challenge by gay couples said it effectively made them second-class citizens.
The ruling by Circuit Judge Luis M. Garcia applies only to Monroe County, which primarily consists of the Keys, and will certainly be appealed. The lawsuit contended that the same-sex marriage ban approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2008 violated the federal 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law. The judge, who was appointed by then-Governor Jeb Bush in 2000 and re-elected in 2002 and 2008, said licenses could not be issued until Tuesday at the earliest.
Attorney General Pam Bondi and ban supporters argued that the referendum vote should be respected and that Florida has sole authority to define marriage in the state. The Florida amendment defined marriage solely as a union between one man and one woman. A message left by The Associated Press with Bondi's office was not immediately returned.
A judge in the Florida Keys has overturned the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage after a legal challenge by six gay couples said it effectively made them second-class citizens.
"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 in his decision. "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 lawsuit on behalf of two residents in the county . "But it's very well written ... a thorough analysis of the argument, so we couldn't be happier." She said her clients would celebrate Thursday night on Key West's famous Duval Street.
"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 effort to put the gay marriage ban on the 2008 ballot.
He said if opponents of the ban want it repealed, they should put the issue back before Florida voters, who passed the ban with nearly 62 percent support. It would take at least 60 percent support to repeal it.
"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 around the country 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 U.S. Supreme Court 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 a related Florida case in Miami-Dade County, attorneys for gay couples noted that, after a long legal fight, the state finally allowed them to adopt children but refused to recognize them 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 gay marriage ban focused mainly on the 2008 referendum vote rather than whether same-sex marriages were harmful or beneficial. Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalition, said it was wrong for a single judge to overrule the will of a majority vote.
"The people of the state have the right to decide," Verdugo said.
Along with the similar lawsuit pending in Miami-Dade, a separate lawsuit is pending in a federal court in Tallahassee seeking to force Florida to allow gay marriage and recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
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.
Florida in 1977 became the only state that prohibited all gay people from adopting children. A state court judge threw out the law in 2008 when she found "no rational basis" for the ban when she approved the adoption of two young brothers by Martin Gill and his male partner. The state decided two years later not to appeal that ruling, making gay adoption legal.