A Florida judge on Friday overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage in a ruling that applies to Miami-Dade County, agreeing with a judge in another county who made a similar ruling last week. Still, no marriage licenses will be issued for gay couples in either county any time soon to allow for appeals.
The ruling by Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel mirrors the decision made earlier by Monroe County Circuit Judge Luis Garcia. Both found the constitutional amendment approved by Florida voters in 2008 discriminates against gay people. They said it violates their right to equal protection under the law guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment.
"Preventing couples from marrying solely on the basis of their sexual orientation serves no governmental interest," Zabel wrote. "It serves only to hurt, to discriminate, to deprive same-sex couples and their families of equal dignity, to label and treat them as second-class citizens, and to deem them unworthy of participation in one of the fundamental institutions of our society."
The effect of Garcia's ruling was put on hold when Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi filed notice of appeal. Zabel also stayed the effect of her ruling indefinitely to allow time for appeals, which could take months, and Bondi promptly followed up Friday by filing an appeal notice in the Miami-Dade case. The county of 2.6 million people is in the top 10 in population in the U.S.
Both judges were appointed by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and have been re-elected.
The legal battleground will next shift to the Miami-based 3rd District Court of Appeal for both cases, and most likely after that to the state Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Friday's ruling was cause for celebration for gay couples across the Miami area.
"It means so much for a court to recognize our family and say that we must be treated equally," said Catherina Pareto, one of the plaintiffs in the case. "We love this state and want nothing more than to be treated as equal citizens who contribute to the community and help make Florida an even better place for everyone who lives here."
Same-sex ban supporters argue that the referendum vote should be respected and that Florida has sole authority to define marriage in the state. The Florida amendment defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Gay marriage proponents have won more than 20 legal decisions around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. 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.
Bondi said in a statement about the Monroe County case that "with many similar cases pending throughout the entire country, finality on this constitutional issue must come from the U.S. Supreme Court."
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow gay people to marry.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott has said he supports the amendment but opposes discrimination. His top Democratic challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist, supports efforts to overturn it.
Florida has long been a gay rights battleground. In the 1970s, singer and orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant successfully campaigned to overturn a Dade County ordinance banning discrimination against gays. The county commission reinstated those protections two decades later.
In 1977, Florida became the only state prohibiting all gay people from adopting children. A state court judge threw out that law in 2008, finding "no rational basis" for that ban, and two years later, the state decided not to appeal, making gay adoption legal.
Gay marriage opponents said the rulings overturning the same-sex marriage ban disenfranchise nearly five million voters — the 62 percent who approved it nearly six years ago. Repealing the amendment would require at least 60 percent support.
"With one stoke of a pen, a mere trial judge has attempted to overthrow an act of direct democracy by five million Floridians who defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman," said John Stemberger, president Florida Family Policy Council, which pushed for passage of the amendment.
The cities of Orlando, Miami Beach and Key Biscayne filed legal papers supporting the gay couples' quest to have the marriage ban ruled unconstitutional. A separate lawsuit is pending in Tallahassee federal court seeking to both overturn Florida's gay marriage ban and force the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.