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Jan 6, 2015 12:34 AM

After Miami's kickoff, gays set to marry across Florida

The Associated Press

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) Florida's ban on same-sex marriage ended statewide at the stroke of midnight Monday, and court clerks in some Florida counties wasted no time, issuing marriage licenses overnight to same-sex couples.

But they still were beaten to the punch by a Miami judge who found no need to wait until the statewide ban expired. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel presided over Florida's first legally recognized same-sex marriages Monday afternoon.

Other counties were eager to welcome same-sex couples to official ceremonies after midnight, when U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle's ruling that Florida's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional took effect in all 67 counties. Florida's attorney general, Pam Bondi, is still pursuing state and federal appeals seeking to uphold the ban that voters approved in 2008, but her effort to block these weddings until the courts finally rule was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And now that same-sex marriage is a reality in Florida, Bondi's spokeswoman told The Associated Press that "the judge has ruled, and we wish these couples the best."

The addition of Florida's 19.9 million people means 70 percent of Americans now live in the 36 states where gay marriage is legal a profound change in national political terms.

Republican Jeb Bush, who opposed gay marriage while serving as Florida's governor and who now may seek the presidency, also sought a middle ground Monday.

"We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law," Bush said in a statement, urging people to "show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty."

Broward Clerk Howard Forman planned to officiate a mass wedding overnight at his county courthouse, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer planned to do the same at city hall later in the morning. Churches throughout the state were holding mass weddings for same-sex couples on Tuesday.

Clerks in Broward, Monroe, Palm Beach and Osceola counties were to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples early Tuesday.

"We wanted to get it, and get it right away," said 43-year-old Tracy Benjamin, who had planned to be first in line with her 29-year-old partner, Tarina Golly, when Osceola Clerk Armando Ramirez started issuing licenses to some 30 same-sex couples at 12:01 a.m.

Gay and lesbian couples in Miami got a head-start when Zabel said she saw no reason why same-sex couples couldn't immediately get their marriage licenses.

Then, she married two couples, Karla Arguello and Cathy Pareto and Todd and Jeff Delmay, in her chambers, packed with supporters and news media for the historic event.

"It's been a long time coming," Pareto said. "Finally, Florida recognizes us as a couple. It's just I don't know, sweet justice."

In Key West, Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones had tuxedo fittings Monday afternoon, aiming to be the first to receive marriage licenses in Monroe County after midnight, followed by an exchange of vows outside the courthouse.

Jones said his stomach was "in knots" in anticipation. He has been wearing a thick silver-colored bracelet that completely circles his left wrist, calling it his "shackle of inequality."

"At 12:01 a.m., this comes off," he said.

But while the news was largely met with cheers or even shrugs from Florida's more liberal enclaves, signs of opposition were evident farther north, where more conservative Floridians live.

In Jacksonville, Duval County Court Clerk Ronnie Fussell shut down the courthouse chapel, saying no marriage ceremonies either gay or straight would be allowed there. At least two other counties in northeast Florida did the same.

"The day is going to come very soon where America is going to wake up and say, 'Whoa! Wait a second! I wanted two guys to live together. I didn't want the fundamental transformation of society. I didn't want human sexuality to be turned upside on its head. I didn't want gender to be removed from law and education and society as a whole,'" said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy council. He led the petition drive to put the gay marriage ban on the ballot back in 2008.


Associated Press writers Curt Anderson in Miami, Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Jason Dearen in Gainesville, Matt Sedensky in West Palm Beach and Melissa Nelson-Gabriel in Pensacola contributed to this report.


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