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Florida Family Action sues Orlando, Osceola officials over plans to marry gay couples

Published Dec. 31, 2014

As Floridians wait for a federal judge to decide whether gay marriage will become the law statewide, or legal in one Panhandle county only, groups on both sides are readying themselves for more court battles.

On Tuesday, a conservative group sued Orlando's mayor, the Osceola County clerk of court and a circuit court judge in a last-ditch effort to prevent them from marrying gay couples next week. Florida Family Action asked a judge to block the three officials from going through with their publicly stated plans to either issue marriage licenses to gay couples or officiate at same-sex weddings.

"All three of these officials have shown great contempt and disrespect for the rule of law and are behaving irresponsibly and unprofessionally," said Florida Family Action president John Stemberger in a written statement. "The federal court decision is clear that it only applies narrowly to the two plaintiffs and only in Washington County."

One of the three officials named in the lawsuit, Osceola County Clerk of Court Armando Ramirez, is the only Florida clerk outside of Washington County who has said he will issue licenses to same-sex couples, according to a survey by the Associated Press last week. Clerks across the state have been warned by their legal counsel that if they were not named in the federal lawsuit challenging the state's gay marriage ban, they could be criminally prosecuted for issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Although a few state attorneys have publicly said they have no intention of prosecuting clerks, others have not said what they would do.

The gay rights group Equality Florida is hoping other clerks will follow Ramirez's lead. The organization is recruiting attorneys to be on stand-by in case clerks decide to issue marriage licenses and face criminal charges and fines.

"Law firms and private attorneys have stated that they will provide pro bono services to any clerk who faces legal action for obeying the law," said Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith.

Florida Family Action's lawsuit comes amid debate over whether U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle's August ruling dissolving Florida's gay marriage ban applies to all 67 counties or only to the one small county named in the plaintiffs' lawsuit.

Gay rights groups and attorneys for the plaintiffs have argued that the ruling was intended to have a statewide effect, legalizing gay marriage in every county. In a brief submitted Monday, Attorney General Pam Bondi said it's not clear that all Florida clerks are affected by the judge's ruling, since clerks are independent constitutional officers.

Asked to clarify his decision, Hinkle is expected to issue new direction before Jan. 6, the day his ruling takes effect.

In the interim, the Central Florida officials named in the group's lawsuit have not been quiet about their plans to ignore the advice provided by the clerks' legal counsel.

In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel earlier this month, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said that he would officiate a mass same-sex wedding at City Hall on the morning of Jan. 6. Ramirez, the clerk, told a Fox News affiliate that he would open his office from midnight to 2 a.m. to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. He updated his agency's website to read: "The Clerk's office is proud to support marriage equality. Marriage licenses will be issued on January 6th 2015 at 12:01 A.M. to the first thirty qualified couples who register online."

According to a Facebook post by the GLBT Community Center of Central Florida, 9th Circuit Court Judge Robert LeBlanc plans to officiate gay weddings at 6 p.m. on Jan. 6.

In a written statement released on Tuesday, Dyer said he wouldn't be issuing marriage licenses to gay couples — that's the job of a clerk of court — but if couples obtain licenses, likely from Ramirez, there's nothing to stop him from performing a marriage ceremony.

"Diversity is one of our community's greatest strengths, and we're proud to be hosting our state's first same-sex marriage ceremony at Orlando City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 6," he said.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813)226-3354. Follow her @annamphillips.