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Gay couples to challenge Florida's marriage ban

Published Jan. 22, 2014

Six South Florida same-sex couples filed suit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on Tuesday, seeking to overturn Florida's ban on gay marriage.

The suit, similar to others sweeping the country, contends that the ban stigmatizes gay couples and their children, serves no legitimate government interest and violates due process and equal protection guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.

Echoing language from the civil rights era, the suit seeks "fundamental rights, dignity and equality.''

The suit was filed on behalf of the couples by Equality Florida, a statewide advocacy group that sifted through about 1,000 potential plaintiffs to set up a test case.

The couples, three male and three female, have been together for years, the suit says. Five of the six couples have children.

They applied for marriage licenses Friday and — as expected — were turned down by the clerk of court. On Tuesday, Equality Florida filed the suit and held a news conference.

"We stand here for those who have applied for marriage licenses and face the humiliation of being denied,'' Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith said. "We stand here for the children of couples who want to know why their parents aren't permitted to get married the way their classmates' parents are."

The push for same-sex marriage has accelerated since last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That ruling left state marriage bans intact, but the court's language provided potent ammunition for state-by-state challenges.

Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage, a figure that doubled in 2013. Federal judges in Oklahoma and Utah have recently struck down gay marriage bans as discriminatory. Lambda Legal, a nationwide gay rights organization, estimates that more than 40 lawsuits are now challenging state level bans.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose office is charged with defending challenges to Florida law, did not respond to requests for comment. The ban, which defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman, was established both by legislative action and by a 2008 constitutional amendment that passed with 62 percent of the vote.

John Stemberger, president and general counsel of the Florida Family Policy Council, promised a vigorous defense.

"Gay activists cannot win in the marketplace, so they have resorted to trying to find renegade courts who have little respect for the rule of law to create social change that would never happen through the people or their elected representatives," Stemberger said in a release. "We will spend as much time and money as necessary to oppose those who seek to redefine marriage in Florida."

The lawsuit's advocates, however, say attitudes toward gay marriage have changed in Florida and elsewhere since 2008, with many opinion polls showing broad support for ending same-sex bans. Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat who is seeking his old job back, said in a statement he supports the lawsuit.

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"No one would want to be told they can't marry the person they love,'' said Crist. "It's an issue of fairness and I'm proud to support it."

Elizabeth Schwartz, a Miami Beach lawyer working on the plaintiffs' case, said whichever side loses will likely appeal to higher courts.

"This could be with us for two or three years,'' she said.

The DOMA ruling focused much of its thrust on dignity and stigmatization. Beyond such abstract concepts, the Florida ban has practical repercussions.

Same-sex couples cannot get survivor's benefits under Social Security, or worker's compensation for a partner who dies on the job. They often cannot get spousal insurance coverage and benefits. Even with air-tight wills, they lack some inheritance rights that recognized marriages confer.

In one of the more vexing ironies, Florida's law prevents gay marriage but makes divorce difficult.

Couples who marry in another state or Canada cannot later get a Florida divorce because the courts cannot legally recognize the marriage long enough to end it. That leaves couples with no clear standard for dividing assets or determining custody of adopted children.

In many cases, unhappy couples are blocked from returning to where they tied the knot because most states impose a residency requirement for divorce.

Off course, divorce is rarely on any couple's mind, straight or gay, when they are seeking a marriage license.

"Carla and I share a beautiful life together,'' said plaintiff Catherina Pareto at the news conference. "We have an amazing son together. We've built a successful business together. We share our finances together. We go to church together. We serve our community together. Our respective families have fully integrated. But in the eyes of the law, we are legal strangers."

Information from the Associated Press and Miami Herald was used in this report. Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at


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