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A historic day in Florida as gay weddings begin

Newlyweds Todd and Jeff Delmay embrace as Karla Arguello, left, and Catherina Pareto applaud Monday during Florida’s first same-sex marriages held in the Miami-Dade courtroom of Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel. Couples in Miami-Dade received their marriage licenses hours before the midnight launch of same-sex weddings statewide. Arguello and Pareto also were married Monday.
Newlyweds Todd and Jeff Delmay embrace as Karla Arguello, left, and Catherina Pareto applaud Monday during Florida’s first same-sex marriages held in the Miami-Dade courtroom of Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel. Couples in Miami-Dade received their marriage licenses hours before the midnight launch of same-sex weddings statewide. Arguello and Pareto also were married Monday.
Published Jan. 6, 2015

Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello got an early start on history Monday, becoming the first gay couple to marry in Florida after a judge let Miami-Dade County issued marriage licenses hours before the midnight launch of same-sex weddings statewide.

Now comes the rest of Florida. Court clerks have deployed extra staff, reworded paperwork and reserved parks and courtrooms to handle the gay couples expected to line up today for the historic — and long-awaited — chance to be married in the Sunshine State.

While some counties opened their offices at midnight, Tampa Bay area clerks kept to their regular schedules. But it promised to be no ordinary day at local government offices. Hillsborough Clerk Pat Frank is planning a mass ceremony at Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman will officiate at one couple's 2 p.m. wedding at City Hall.

"This is how change happens," said Howard Simon, director of Florida American Civil Liberties Union, whose lawyers represented the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit challenging the state's 2008 ban on same-sex marriages.

Hoping to be first in line in Tampa, Shirley Winslow and Brenda Cuevas of Lutz headed to the Hillsborough County courthouse around 5 p.m. Monday. Armed only with folding chairs and Diet Pepsi, the couple planned to stay most of the night — except for a short period of relief from friends who will save their spots.

Waiting a few more hours didn't bother the women, who met at McDonald's as young managers and have seen each other through 25 years of school, health problems and, now, early retirement.

"In our minds, we are a legitimate couple," said Winslow, 50. "Our friends recognize our relationship, our families recognize our relationship. . . ."

Cuevas, 51, broke in: "We want everybody else to recognize our relationship."

Opposition to the court rulings continues. Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group, planned to file complaints in several counties to block clerks from issuing licenses to same-sex couples. More than a dozen counties, including Pasco, have stopped performing all marriages so that their only legal duty will be to issue the licenses. And the state's Catholic bishops issued a joint statement saying legalizing gay marriage "advances the notion that marriage is only about the affective gratification of consenting adults."

The U.S. Supreme Court could still weigh in. Yet the Florida official who fought hardest to block the marriages — Attorney General Pam Bondi — conceded defeat on Monday. "We wish these couples the best,'' said Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray in a statement.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is considering a run for president, said it was time to move on. "I hope that we can also show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue — including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty," he said.

Gov. Rick Scott, who will be inaugurated today for his second term, did not release a statement.

And so local officials focus this week on the details of how to carry out their mandate. Pinellas Clerk Ken Burke said he has shifted employees from other departments to triple the staff available to help with marriage licenses. He has also reserved extra courtrooms and conference rooms for ceremonies.

"I think we're ready," he said.

In Hernando County, Clerk Don Barbee hasn't received many inquiries, so he isn't sure what to expect. "We could have three couples or 300 couples," he said. Either way, he said, his office is ready both to issue marriage licenses and perform wedding ceremonies.

Clerks are also offering couples ways around the three-day waiting period to get married. Frank said she'll waive the wait time for couples who want to get married at the same time they get their licenses.

Couples in Pinellas and Pasco must request hardship exemptions from the waiting period, which will be sent to judges for consideration, just as they have been for heterosexual couples. In Hernando, Barbee said he'll waive the waiting period for couples who sign an affidavit claiming a hardship exemption.

Couples who apply for their marriage licenses in Pasco should find a well-staffed office, but they can't get married by courthouse staff. Pasco Clerk Paula O'Neil said her office decided in August to stop holding ceremonies as part of an effort to cut costs. She said the last ones held were in September.

She acknowledged, however, that the same-sex marriage issue factored into her decision since she has employees who say they would have been uncomfortable marrying gay couples.

Still, O'Neil reached out to nearby notaries — several within walking distance of the Dade City and New Port Richey courthouses — who say they will perform the marriage ceremonies.

"If a couple wants to apply for a license and get married the same day, the potential is there to do it all on the same campus,'' she said.

One notary who stepped up is lawyer Chip Mander, whose offices are near the Dade City courthouse. "They asked us if we'd be willing to do it, we're right across the street, and we said, 'Sure, we're glad to do it,' " Mander said.

Though clerks aren't authorized to make the state marriage licenses gender-neutral, many were modifying related documents to change references to "husband" and "wife" to "spouse." Barbee said Monday his office had also modified ceremonial vows to be gender-neutral.

Florida is the 36th state to allow same-sex weddings. The addition of Florida's 19.9 million residents means 70 percent of Americans now live in states where gay marriage is legal.

Gay marriages in other states will now be recognized in Florida. At a bar in downtown Pensacola on Monday, gay couples married elsewhere counted down the last 10 seconds before 5:01 p.m. — the hour the local clerk's office closes, and their marriages become legal in Florida.

"Until now, I was considered single in Florida," said Scott Haring, 53, who married his husband, Mark Palmer, 50, in Massachusetts in 2012. "It's definitely a psychological thing."

Florida's same-sex marriages began Monday in the same county — Miami-Dade — where 38 years ago a former beauty pageant queen and orange juice spokeswoman named Anita Bryant launched her national campaign against gay rights.

Back in Tampa Monday, the first couple in line, Winslow and Cuevas, showed a reporter what they have had to carry with them for years: a plastic bag with envelopes marked "Brenda's Life Papers" and "Shirley's Life Papers." The documents include powers of attorney and living wills, anything they'd have to show to prove their lifelong commitment. Now they hope marriage will do that.

Getting to the courthouse early wasn't just for fun. They've held their breath through all the legal fits and starts as gay marriage made its way through the courts. And they're not taking any chances.

"We want to be here," said Winslow. "We want to get this done . . ."

Cuevas broke in again: "Before they change their minds."

Times staff writers C.T. Bowen, Dan DeWitt, Anna Phillips, Charlie Frago and Richard Danielson contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press and Miami Herald. Contact Jodie Tillman at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.