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Jan 5, 2015 11:36 AM

Miami judge approves early start to Florida's gay weddings

The Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) A local judge provided a jump-start Monday to Florida's entry as the 36th state where gays and lesbians can legally marry, saying she saw no reason why same-sex couples couldn't immediately get their licenses in Miami-Dade County ahead of a midnight launch statewide.

The addition of Florida's 19.9 million people means 70 percent of Americans will now live in states where gay marriage is legal.

It also reflects how much the nation's third-largest state has changed since the days of Anita Bryant, the former beauty pageant queen and orange juice spokeswoman who started her national campaign against gay rights in Miami in the 1970s.

The courtroom erupted in cheers when Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel cleared the way for a gay couple and a lesbian couple to marry. The judge said she would perform the ceremonies herself later Monday, according to their attorney, Jeffrey Cohen.

"Miami-Dade must be at the forefront," said Cohen. "These plaintiffs have waited long enough."

The first same-sex marriage license officially issued in Florida went to a pair of women who never expected to make history. Deborah Shure and Aymarah Robles said they attended the hearing in Zabel's courtroom and then went down to get their license, expecting a line. They were the first ones there.

"We don't really think of it as being first. We're just happy for everyone here," said Robles, who plans a low-key wedding on Tuesday.

Other same-sex marriages were expected to happen around the state after midnight Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle's ruling, covering all 67 counties, was set to take effect. Both judges found that the same-sex wedding ban in Florida's constitution violates the guarantees of equal treatment and due process enshrined in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The court decisions have thrilled gay and lesbian couples in Florida.

"It means that we're no different than any other couple in the U.S.," said Bill Munette, a Realtor in Pinellas County, Fla., who had a commitment ceremony with his partner in March of 2000.

Large-scale ceremonies in Orlando, Tampa, Key West and Broward County were planned for Tuesday. Others planned to take their time.

"We want to do it right," said Munette, who is 48, and is planning a March 2016 wedding with his 55-year-old partner, Robb Schoonmaker.

"We don't want to rush to get it done. We're planning it just like any normal couple would."

But while the news was largely met with cheers or even shrugs from Florida's more liberal enclaves such as South Florida and St. Petersburg, signs of opposition to the rulings 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.

"Mr. Fussell said some of his people felt a little uncomfortable doing it," said Charlie Broward, a spokesman for the clerk. "It could cause discriminations down there (in the marriage license department) with those who are uncomfortable. We wanted to eliminate any unfairness."

Florida's northern counties may see an influx of license applications by same-sex couples from other southern states where marriage bans remain in place. Sean Hudson, a spokesman for the state clerks' association, said he was unaware of any clerk that didn't plan to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples seeking them, although several have said they won't do any more weddings for anyone.

"That's not a statutory duty of theirs," said Hudson, referring to the ceremonies. "The clerks are going to do what their duty is."

Florida's constitution was amended to ban same-sex marriages in 2008 by voters who approved it by a 60 percent margin. But judges in Florida found it discriminatory, mirroring decisions in many other states.

And even as gays and lesbians get marriage licenses, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has appeals pending in state and federal courts, seeking to uphold the state's ban. Bondi's position one shared by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, now considering a run for president is that marriage should be defined by each state.

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Florida weren't giving up without a fight.

Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group based in the Orlando area, planned to file complaints in several counties Monday in an effort to block clerks from issuing licenses to same-sex couples, said the group's lawyer, Horatio "Harry" Mihet.

The group already tried to block Osceola County's clerk in a complaint filed on behalf of Florida Family Action, Inc., but that advocacy group's case was dismissed last week. A similar case is pending in Orange County.

Mihet still hopes for success in the courts, and said "the fact that some clerks may issue licenses against the law doesn't obviate any of the appeals."

The state's first weddings were set to happen in the same county where, 38 years ago, Bryant successfully campaigned to overturn a Dade County ordinance banning discrimination against gays. The county commission reinstated those protections two decades later.

Bryant's career suffered as did Florida orange juice sales and she blamed the "ultra-liberal press."

"They're saying I'm a bigot and have hatred for the homosexuals," she told The AP in 1977. "I don't hate homosexuals. I love them enough to tell them the truth: that God puts them in the category with other sinners."

The state's Catholic bishops issued a joint statement Monday expressing disappointment, saying implications of gay marriages aren't fully understood and will upend millennia of tradition.

"How society understands marriage has great public significance," they said. "Because of this, redefining civil 'marriage' to include two persons of the same sex will have far-reaching consequences in society. Such a change advances the notion that marriage is only about the affective gratification of consenting adults."


Lush reported from St. Petersburg. AP writers Jason Dearen in Gainesville, Mike Schneider in Orlando and Melissa Nelson-Gabriel in Pensacola contributed to this report.


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