Florida is a significant step closer to treating all loving couples equally. A Monroe County circuit judge's decision Thursday to overturn the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage is a milestone victory for equality and fairness. Now the appellate courts should move quickly to affirm the decision so it can apply statewide, and Attorney General Pam Bondi should not keep standing in the way.
The ruling by Circuit Judge Luis Garcia was predictable and applies only to Monroe County. But it follows nearly two dozen similar decisions in state and federal courts nationwide since June 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court found portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Same-sex couples can marry legally now in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and Florida should join them as soon as possible.
Bondi argued that the gay marriage ban in the Florida Constitution should be upheld because it was approved by voters in 2008, and she contended only the state can define marriage. But Garcia rejected that discredited argument and echoed the opinions of other judges around the country that the same-sex marriage ban violates the U.S. Constitution's equal protection and due process clauses.
This is an issue of equality and fundamental fairness. As the judge noted, same-sex couples do not enjoy the same advantages as married couples because their relationship is not recognized by Florida law. He wrote that same-sex couples have a harder time making health care decisions for the other spouse, do not have the same rights to equitable distribution of property if they break up, and lose many other state and federal benefits of being legally married.
Garcia appropriately compared overturning the ban on same-sex marriage to other instances in which federal constitutional guarantees allowed interracial marriages and black children access to all-white public schools.
"The court is aware that the majority of voters oppose same-sex marriage,'' he wrote, "but it is our country's proud history to protect the rights of the individual, the rights of the unpopular and the rights of the powerless, even at the cost of offending the majority.''
Public opinion has been evolving quickly since voters approved the same-sex marriage ban in the state Constitution nearly six years ago. While the same conservative groups that promoted that constitutional amendment reacted with predictable hyperbole to Thursday's court decision, more Floridians are recognizing the unfairness of treating committed couples unequally because of their gender. There also is a broader acknowledgement that embracing such discrimination is bad for the state's image and its economy. Modern Florida is a melting pot that has become more inclusive and accepting, less fearful of change and more tolerant of those with different skin colors, languages or sexual orientation.
Thursday's ruling was an important landmark, and it is in step with other court rulings throughout the nation and with quickly changing public opinion. The next step is for the appellate courts to affirm the decision so that same-sex couples throughout Florida enjoy the same right to marry as others.
It would be helpful if the state attorney general finally recognized that federal constitutional protections apply to all regardless of sexual orientation and helped make this process a smooth one.