Miami-Dade County became the first place in Florida to allow same-sex couples to marry on Monday, half a day before a gay-marriage ban that has been ruled unconstitutional is lifted in the rest of the state.
Weddings began around 1:30 p.m., less than three hours after Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel lifted the legal stay she had placed on her sweeping July decision declaring the ban discriminatory.
Two of the six couples who had sued — Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello of Coconut Grove, and Jeff and Todd Delmay of Hollywood — were the first to be married, by Zabel herself.
The couples exchanged rings surrounded by family, friends and a pack of television crews at downtown Miami's historic civil courthouse following Zabel's 11 a.m. ruling.
"In the big picture, does it really matter whether or not I lift the stay or leave it until tomorrow?" Zabel said from the bench. "I'm lifting the stay."
The elected clerk of courts, Harvey Ruvin, at first said same-sex marriages would begin at 2 p.m. But once his office received a signed copy of Zabel's two-page order at noon, he let couples could apply for marriage licenses immediately.
"All of our offices are now fully prepared to follow the judge's order, and everyone will be treated equally," said Ruvin, a Democrat in a nonpartisan post.
Same-sex couples are now be able to marry in 36 states and Washington, D.C. The ruling also means gay marriages performed outside Florida will be recognized in Miami-Dade.
Cheers erupted in the courthouse with Zabel's decision. Some of the couples who were plaintiffs in the case cried tears of joy. Outside, surrounded by a throng of reporters and photographers, they held hands and raised their arms in victory.
"I feel good. I am relieved. I feel vindicated," said Pareto, of Coconut Grove. She and her partner of more than 14 years, Arguello, arrived in cream-colored dresses, ready to get hitched. They were the first couple to obtain a marriage license Monday.
"Finally," Arguello said. "Finally, our family will not be treated any differently."
Outside of Miami-Dade, most Florida court clerks will start marrying gay couples Tuesday — some of them at 12:01 a.m. — following a federal judge's order. Several counties in conservative North Florida have stopped marrying people in their offices, in part to avoid marrying same-sex couples, although they will still have to issue marriage licenses.
U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle of Tallahassee declared the state ban unconstitutional in August, but stayed his decision through Monday to give some time for legal appeals. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a Republican, sought extensions of the stay from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, but both turned her down.
The ban was approved in by 62 percent of Florida voters in 2008 as part of Amendment 2, an initiative organized by the Orlando-based Florida Family Policy Council.
In a statement issued Monday, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops said it was "deeply disappointed" by Hinkle's decision and by the appeals courts' refusal to grant Bondi an extension.
"Marriage based on the complementarity of the sexes is the lifeblood of family, and family is the foundation of our society," the bishops said. "The crisis that sadly the family is experiencing today will only be aggravated by imposing this redefinition of marriage. Society must rediscover the irreplaceable roles of both mother and father who bring unique gifts to the education and rearing of children."
Last year, Zabel was the second state judge — after Judge Luis Garcia in the Florida Keys — to overturn a 2008 voter-approved amendment to Florida's Constitution that required marriages to be between a man and a woman. In all, four South Florida judges sided with same-sex couples who either sought to marry or divorce, or to have the state recognize their out-of-state marriage. The other two judges hailed from Broward and Palm Beach counties.
In the Keys, Judge Garcia vacated his stay Monday afternoon, but made the order effective at midnight, which means same-sex couples will be able to marry there beginning at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. Monroe County Clerk Amy Heavilin's office plans to open at that time to marry 100 couples. First in line will be Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones of Key West, who filed the case that prompted Garcia's ruling.
Broward Clerk Howard Forman also plans to grant licenses beginning at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, with a mass wedding scheduled for 3 a.m.
Zabel ruled in favor of six same-sex couples from Miami-Dade and Broward, and the LGBT-rights group Equality Florida Institute, who sued last Jan. 21. They were the first plaintiffs to challenge Florida's ban in court.
On Monday, Zabel kept her decision short: "The Clerk of the Court is hereby authorized to issue marriage licenses forthwith to prospective spouses of the same gender," she wrote.
In addition to Pareto and Arguello and the Delmays, the other plaintiff couples were Jorge Isaias Diaz and Don Price Johnston of Miami; Dr. Juan Carlos Rodriguez and David Price of Davie; Vanessa and Melanie Alenier of Hollywood; Summer Greene and Pamela Faerber of Plantation.
Pareto's and Arguello's mothers, who accompanied their daughters to Monday's hearing, later stood on chairs to see over the crowd as their daughters signed their marriage license.
Ruvin's office had no time Monday to print new license applications, so Pareto signed as "groom" and Arguello as "bride."
"Take lots of pictures," said Marlene Pareto, who was tearing up. "My daughter looks prettier today than ever."
Miami Herald staff writers Audra D.S. Burch and Carli Teproff contributed to this report.