Saturday, November 17, 2018
News Roundup

Tampa Bay area prepares to issue same-sex marriage licenses

After reciting their vows in front of a Vermont bed-and-breakfast fireplace, after drinking champagne and sharing a white-frosted wedding cake, Kate and Beth Bauer-Jones boarded a flight home to Tampa.

They got on the plane in Boston as a "fully married, equal, regular couple," Kate Bauer-Jones said. "And we got off the plane in Florida, and we weren't any more. We were nothing. Legally, we were strangers."

But under a court decision this week, their out-of-state, same-sex marriage in October could be recognized in Florida as soon as early next month. And with the possibility of the state's ban against gay marriages ending, court officials across Tampa Bay are revising documents and preparing to conduct same-sex wedding ceremonies in the coming weeks.

In August, a federal judge in Tallahassee ruled that the state's voter-approved prohibition of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. He stayed his ruling, pending appeal, until Jan. 5. On Wednesday, with no appeal scheduled, a federal appeals court denied requests to extend the stay — allowing same-sex couples in Florida to begin marrying as soon as Jan. 6.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi still might seek a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court, though the court has denied similar requests in Alaska, Idaho, Kansas and South Carolina.

For Kate, 33, and Beth, 38, the demise of the ban would mean being "the same as any other married couple." Same-sex couples already receive certain federal benefits — but until Florida's ban drops, no state protections.

For Beth Bauer-Jones, whose father recently died with his wife by his side, gaining those protections means gaining control.

"I can't imagine having lived with my love for that long and not being able to be there for them or not being in control of everything," she said. "Everything was easier because she was able to say, 'I am his wife.' "

Court officials have been reviewing and updating procedures to be ready if the state's same-sex marriage ban is indeed lifted next month.

Phrases in court marriage documents such as "husband and wife" and "this man takes this woman" would become gender-neutral terms such as "spouse 1" and "spouse 2" under revisions being circulated among clerks.

Once amended, said Ken Burke, the Pinellas County clerk of the circuit court, the forms will be incorporated in his computer system for marriages here.

Hillsborough County's clerk, Pat Frank, said her office has been working on new marriage license forms in anticipation that Florida's ban would fall. And if same-sex marriage is allowed, she said, there will be local ceremonies.

"I know that in the Panhandle there are some clerks who are not going to provide the opportunity for a ceremony, so I want to make it clear that we will," Frank said.

Burke said he doesn't anticipate hiring additional staff in the coming month to handle what could be an influx. His office, which issues about 7,000 licenses a year and performs about 1,600 ceremonies, is already staffed to handle high-volume occasions such as Valentine's Day.

As for all couples, marriage comes with obligations in addition to benefits.

"We're all so thrilled that the long wait is over, but just because you can get married doesn't mean that you should," Miami Beach lawyer Elizabeth Schwartz said. "Marriage is not a one-size-fits-all institution."

Schwartz co-represents six same-sex couples, who sued with the Equality Florida Institute in Miami-Dade Circuit Court for the right to marry.

She recommended that couples considering marriage consult their accountants and attorneys to discuss matters such as prenuptial agreements, tax effects and what would happen to children in the event of divorce.

Florida law requires a three-day wait between when a couple applies for a marriage license and when they can have a wedding ceremony. Couples who complete a brief marital counseling course can skip the waiting period and save money on a license.

However, individuals asserting hardship with a waiver from a county court judge may avoid the wait without taking the course.

Residents who complete the counseling course in advance could get married Jan. 6, Frank said, if there is no additional court action to prevent it.

For some, just knowing same-sex marriage is possible comes as a tremendous relief.

"There's nothing I've wanted more than to marry the love of my life, and it has been very painful to wait for this ban to drop," said Hannah Fizell, a marine biology student at St. Petersburg College.

Fizell, 22, has found solace in the care of her partner through a distressing illness, rejection by her family and dismissal by two churches.

"We've had to rebuild our lives from the very ground," she said. "All we want is to get married, and this has been an ongoing battle with the state of Florida."

Again and again, Fizell considered leaving St. Petersburg, her home since birth. But then the news came that she might be able to marry her partner after all.

Now all she can think about is walking down the aisle and saying her vows.

Times staff writers Anna M. Phillips and Keyonna Summers contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613.

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