Florida's ban on same-sex marriage is under attack in multiple courtrooms, a fight that's spilling out onto the 2014 campaign trail.
Advocates of same-sex marriage are convinced it's a matter of when — not if — gay marriage becomes legal in Florida.
“We’ll definitely have it here in Florida,” said Rand Hoch, president and founder of the gay rights group Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. “In another few years, there won’t be ‘gay marriage.’ There’s just going to be ‘marriage.’”
Stephen Muffler, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who married his husband Lisandro Depaula in New York in 2012, said, "I'm very optimistic — more optimistic now than I have ever been."
That outlook is justified, said Joseph Jackson, a University of Florida law professor who has written court briefs in cases involving same-sex couples and their family relationships. "The trend of court decisions is quite clear."
The timing is uncertain. A ruling in one of the two highest profile cases — filed in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the gay rights group Safeguarding American Values for Everyone — could come at any time. A hearing in a second major case, filed by the Equality Florida gay rights group and the National Center for Lesbian Rights in state court, is set for July 2. A total of eight cases are pending in Florida circuit and appellate courts and in federal court.
Rulings in favor of same-sex marriage may not produce an immediate rush to the altar. Jackson said the cases could take 18 months to two years to work their way through appeals.
Supporters of the 2008 amendment that enshrined the ban on same-sex marriage in the Florida Constitution are outraged that courts might undo their work. The referendum passed with 62 percent of the vote statewide and 52 percent in Broward County.
"I am hoping and praying that that's not what's going to happen," said Jannique Stewart, of Coconut Creek, president of Love Protects, a Fort Lauderdale-based Christian ministry that believes in a biblical approach to sexuality. She was the South Florida spokeswoman for the amendment's supporters.
"We voted on this in 2008, we didn't vote on this in the 1800s," Stewart said. "I think it would be really appalling if judges chose to ignore the will of the people."
Mark D. Boykin, senior pastor of Church of All Nations in Boca Raton, said court action would be "an outrage" and "un-American."
“The people have made their wishes known,” Boykin said. “This is just a back door way to try and get what they want and circumvent the people. If they truly want this it should not come from the courts. The courts adjudicate, they don’t legislate. They have inverted our system and now if they don’t get what they want by the ballot initiative, they turn to the courts, some rogue judge.”
Muffler said that's exactly what the courts are designed to do. "Traditionally that's where minorities seek justice," he said. "We have to rely on the court systems to right the wrongs and protect minorities from the majority."
Stewart said she believes it is "disrespectful" for supporters of same-sex marriage to compare their cause to the civil rights movement and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that put an end to bans on interracial marriage.
"Nobody is saying that homosexuals need to sit in the back of the bus. Nobody is suggesting in any way that they need separate water fountains. No one is even telling them they can't love," she said. "All we're saying is do not change the existing definition of marriage."
The U.S. Supreme Court advanced same-sex marriage in a pair of rulings on June 26, 2013, striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and letting stand a lower court ruling that allowed same-sex marriage in California. The justices allowed state bans on same-sex marriage to continue.
A legal filing by state Attorney General Palm Bondi in the ACLU's federal case has helped turn same-sex marriage into a 2014 political issue.
She ignited a political firestorm by telling the court that "Florida's marriage laws, then, have a close, direct, and rational relationship to society's legitimate interest in increasing the likelihood that children will be born to and raised by the mothers and fathers who produced them in stable and enduring family units."
After Democrats and gay rights advocates hammered Republican Bondi, she said in a statement that "voters had the right to adopt this definition of marriage" and said she felt compelled to mount "the best defense of our voters' policy preferences."
Hoch said Bondi, who has been divorced twice, has no business "saying who can and can't get married. She's not the poster child for marriage."
Charlie Crist and Nan Rich, candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor, used Bondi's brief to bludgeon Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has described himself as supporter of "traditional" marriage.
Rich said Bondi should stop defending the state ban. Crist called same sex-marriage "an issue of fundamental fairness … who are we to tell anyone who to love?"
Scott, after a recent campaign appearance in Boca Raton, wouldn't say if he supports Bondi's position in the court filing. "We have traditional marriage by Constitution in our state. I don't want anybody discriminated against. And I'll be surprised if a court will overturn the will of the people," he said.
Scott said he opposes "discrimination against anyone in our state" but wouldn't say if he thinks preventing gays and lesbians from getting married discriminates against them.
While Democratic voters and elected officials are largely supportive of same-sex marriage, it isn't universal. Last week, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler was on the losing side of a 3-2 city commission vote supporting same-sex marriage. "I have not changed or wavered on my position with respect to this issue," said Seiler, a prominent Democrat and former state legislator.
Most Republican voters are opposed to same-sex marriage, as are most of the party's public officials. But that's not a universal view. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, is a co-chairwoman of the group Southerners for the Freedom to Marry.
The lone Republican on the Fort Lauderdale commission, Bruce Roberts, voted in favor of same-sex marriage. "I don't want to be on the wrong side of history," he said. And Hoch said the human rights council regards state Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, as an ally on the issue.
But Stewart said the shift in public opinion and the increasing number of elected officials supporting same-sex marriage is misleading. "People almost feel forced to accept it. Because if they don't, what happens? … People are labeled a bigot. When in reality it has nothing to do with discriminating against people."
Tony Lima, executive director of the gay rights group SAVE, which operates in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, said opponents of same-sex marriage "underestimate the temperature or the climate of this state at the moment. I think when the marriage ban was voted for it was a different time. And many polls that have been done recently really point to the fact that people in this state are ready to acknowledge same-sex couples getting married."
Refer: Video of Gov. Rick Scott answering questions on same-sex marriage at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
Same-sex marriage cases
Grimsley v. Scott: Eight same-sex couples seek recognition in Florida of same-sex marriages performed in other states. Plaintiffs include Chuck Hunziger and Bob Collier of Fort Lauderdale.
Brenner v. Scott: Couple married in Canada seeks Florida recognition of their marriage after government employee couldn't designate his same-sex spouse in state retirement program. Judge ordered case consolidated with the Grimsley.
Pareto v. Ruvin: Six-same sex couples denied marriage licenses argue that treating gay couples differently than same-sex couples violates the U.S. Constitution. Plaintiffs include Summer Greene and Pamela Faerber, of Plantation; Vanessa and Melanie Alenier, of Hollywood; Juan Carlos Rodriguez and David Price, of Davie; and Todd and Jeff Delmay, of Hollywood.
Huntsman v. Heavilin: Key West couple suing Monroe County clerk of the circuit court, who issues marriage licenses, seeking right to marry in Florida.
Dousset v. Florida Atlantic University: Paul Rubio and Gildas Dousset want the state to recognize their 2013 Massachusetts marriage so Dousset can get in-state tuition at FAU.
Shaw v. Shaw: Couple seeking recognition of their out-of-state marriage so their divorce case can proceed in Hillsborough County.
Trepanier and Puente v. Heavilin: Key West couple suing Monroe County clerk of the circuit court, who issues marriage licenses, seeking right to marry in Florida.
Simpson v. Bondi: Jason Simpson suing in Palm Beach County Circuit Court seeking recognition of his marriage so he can qualify as the "personal representative" to handle the estate proceedings of his deceased husband Frank Bangor.
Sources: Interviews, Sun Sentinel archives, news releases, Freedom to Marry, American Civil Liberties Union, Key West Citizen newspaper.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun