Same-sex couples challenge Florida ban on gay marriage

Same-sex couples claim that the Florida ban on gay marriage is a 'government-imposed stigma' that fosters 'private bias and discrimination.' Same-sex marriage is banned in 30 states.

Wilfredo Lee/AP
Vanessa Alenier (l.) smiles at her partner Melanie Alenier during an interview in Miami Beach, Fla., Jan. 21. Six gay couples, including the Aleniers, filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to overturn Florida's ban on same-sex marriage, the latest in a series of cases across the country that contend such prohibitions are unconstitutional and effectively relegate gay partners to second-class status.

Six same-sex couples in Florida have filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on gay marriage on grounds that it violates fundamental guarantees of the US Constitution, including a right to marry regardless of sexual orientation.

The suit, filed in state court in Miami on Tuesday, comes after federal judges in Utah and Oklahoma recently declared same-sex marriage bans in those states unconstitutional. Both decisions are being appealed.

The 21-page complaint seeks to overturn two Florida laws, passed in 1977 and 1997, limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples. It also seeks to invalidate a 2008 amendment to the Florida constitution defining marriage as “the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife.”

“These laws brand same-sex couples and their children as second-class citizens through government-imposed stigma and foster private bias and discrimination,” the complaint says in part.

It does so by “instructing all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their relationships and families are less worthy than others,” the suit says.

The exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage in Florida reflects “moral disapproval and animus toward same-sex couples,” and only serves to “disparage and demean same-sex couples and their children,” the complaint says.

The Florida suit is the latest in a string of lawsuits filed nationwide challenging state statutes and state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. Currently 17 states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages. Thirty states have banned the practice.

In addition to litigating the issue at the state level, gay rights activists are also seeking to get same-sex marriage back before the US Supreme Court for a definitive ruling that they hope will strike down such bans nationwide.

Last June, in a landmark decision, the high court struck down a key portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The majority justices said the federal government exceeded its authority by enforcing a federal law that barred same-sex couples from receiving the same federal benefits available to heterosexual married couples.

The Supreme Court said that same-sex couples who are legally married under the law in their home state are entitled to receive the same federal benefits available to opposite-sex couples.

What the high court did not do in its decision is announce whether states that decide not to recognize same-sex marriages may continue to do so without violating the US Constitution. The high court also left open the question of whether the Constitution recognizes and protects a fundamental right to marry regardless of gender.

The Florida lawsuit is asking a state judge to rule that the Florida laws and constitutional ban violate the US Constitution. Lawyers for the couples want the state judge to impose a permanent injunction barring state officials – including clerks who issue marriage licenses – from upholding the ban on same-sex marriages.

The six couples in the Florida suit all reside in south Florida and all six tried to obtain marriage licenses last Friday, Jan. 17.

The defendant in the case is Harvey Ruvin, the clerk of the courts in Miami-Dade County. Officials in Mr. Ruvin’s office followed the existing state laws and declined to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

It is that action that forms the basis for the lawsuit.

Lawyers for the couples compare the ban on same-sex marriage to laws that barred people of different races from marrying.

“Until 1967, the Constitution and laws of Florida barred marriages between white and black persons,” the suit says. That year, the US Supreme Court invalidated a Virginia law and declared a fundamental right to marry regardless of race.

Now the question is whether the same legal analysis will apply to same-sex marriages.

Some opponents of gay marriage argue that societal changes are happening too quickly and that the institution of marriage will be undermined.

Lawyers for the Florida couples reject such concerns. “History has taught that the legitimacy and vitality of marriage do not depend on upholding discriminatory marriage laws,” the suit says.

“On the contrary, eliminating these remaining unconstitutional barriers to marriage further enhances the institution and society,” the lawyers wrote.

The lead plaintiff in the case is Catherina Pareto, who owns and operates a financial planning firm. She and her partner, Karla Arguello, have been in a committed relationship for 14 years and want to make it permanent.

Ms. Arguello is a stay-at-home mom caring for their adopted 15-month-old son.

“Florida is our home, it is where we are raising our child, and where we want to get married,” Ms. Pareto said in a statement.

“Karla and I wish for our family the same things that other families want,” she said. “We want to build our lives together, provide a safe and caring home for our child, and share in the responsibilities and protections of marriage.”

The case is Pareto v. Ruvin.

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