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What does the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling mean for Florida?

Allen Backer, 67, and Robb Sanborn, 68, of Dunedin kiss after watching the president's televised speech Friday praising the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Backer and Sanborn wached the speech at the LGBT Welcome Center at 2227 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg. Backer and Sanborn were married in 2004 in Boston. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Jun. 27, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision Friday relegates Florida's gay marriage ban to the cobwebbed corners of history.

The court's ruling brings closure to a yearslong battle between same-sex couples seeking the right to marry and to have their out-of-state marriages recognized, and the state's Republican leaders, who have fought it at every turn. Although gay marriage became legal in Florida in January, it has remained on appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, waiting for the Supreme Court to decide whether gay couples had the right to marry nationwide.

The ban "is dead," said Elizabeth White, a Jacksonville civil rights attorney who helped bring one of the cases that led to a federal judge's decision last year striking down the state's same-sex marriage ban. "It feels like the ultimate win."

The court's 5-4 ruling that all gay marriage bans are unconstitutional bookends decades of tireless activism nationally and in Florida, where lawmakers have passed some of the country's toughest antigay laws and where Anita Bryant's crusade against homosexuals in the 1970s made her a national celebrity for the religious right. Although attitudes toward gay men and lesbians have shifted rapidly across the United States, Florida's legislature remains deeply divided. A few months ago, Tallahassee lawmakers voted to repeal the state's 30-year ban on adoptions by same-sex couples, but also considered a measure allowing private adoption agencies to reject would-be parents who are gay.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has led the state's efforts to defend its marriage ban, issued a muted response to the ruling.

"We have always sought finality on this important constitutional issue, and today the United States Supreme Court provided the clarity our state and country was seeking," she said in a statement. Florida's legal efforts "were not about personal beliefs or opinions, but rather, the rule of law."

Reaction from gay rights advocates arrived swiftly and joyously, as many celebrated the certainty that gay marriage in Florida would remain a legal right. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled, all that remains to cement its finality is a series of procedural steps by the 11th Circuit and the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee.

Some gay marriage opponents predicted the ruling would inspire public backlash, just as the court's 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade lead to decades of legal battles over abortion rights. Others urged the public to resist the court's ruling.

Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, tweeted that he opposed any action by the federal government, including the Supreme Court, that tramples on states' rights.

"A centralized and autonomous government that can give you what you want today, can later and on a whim, take away all that you care about," Grant wrote.

In St. Petersburg, the Rev. Gustave Victor, associate pastor of Dominion Worship Center Church of God, said he intends to preach about the court's decision at Sunday services.

"The Bible says God made a man and then he made a woman for the man, and he did not make a man for a man, or a woman for a woman," Victor said. "It's very confusing why they want to let gays be happy. I don't believe in it. … We can't say that gays are going to be welcome to come in here and get married."

In 2008, on the heels of a national movement to pass same-sex marriage bans at the state level, 62 percent of Florida's voters approved a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman. Although some cities, such as Miami, Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg, passed domestic partnership registries, the state ban cut off gay couples from many of the financial and legal rights of being married.

Until recently, many gay couples living in Florida who were married in other states could not get divorced. They could not administer a partner's estate or make health care decisions without medical directives or power of attorney. If they adopted children, they had to do so separately and often at additional expense, as the state refused to acknowledge their relationships.

Years of legal challenges, both at the state and federal level, followed. In August of 2014, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled Florida's gay marriage ban unconstitutional and rejected Bondi's request that he delay his decision from taking effect while she appealed. On Jan. 6, Florida became the 36th state to allow gay marriage.

For White, who was born and raised in Florida, the fact that state's marriage ban fell six months before the Supreme Court interceded is a victory on its own.

"Florida is a very odd place, and a very diverse place," she said, "but to think we did not have to get dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century is wonderful."

Yet many months after gay marriage became legal here, not everyone readily accepts it as the new reality.

Immediately after Florida's marriage ban fell, more than a dozen clerks of court, many of them in the most conservative regions of the state, chose to stop holding marriage ceremonies for anyone, rather than perform them for gay couples. In most of the Panhandle and parts of Central Florida, same-sex couples who wish to marry can get marriage licenses from clerks, but have no choice but to find their own officiants.

This is still the policy in Pasco County, where the clerk of court has said that most of her staff who oversee marriage licenses are "uncomfortable" officiating same-sex weddings.

Some state agencies, such as the Bureau of Vital Statistics, have responded to the legalization of gay marriage with bureaucratic lethargy. Although hundreds of gay couples have married in Florida, the bureau still prints marriage licenses with the words "bride" and "groom." Gay couples have also run into difficulty when trying to have their marriages recognized on birth and death certificates.

But legal experts said the Supreme Court's decision will likely force slow-moving or reluctant agencies to recognize couples' unions.

"There have been some entities that have been waiting to implement full marriage equality in all aspects until there was a more, in their mind, final ruling," said Elizabeth Schwartz, an attorney who sued on behalf of gay couples in Miami-Dade to overturn the same-sex marriage ban. "This is a reinforcement; this is final."

Though eager to celebrate the victory, some gay rights advocates cautioned that the legal battle for full equality in Florida is far from over. Although at least 10 counties in Florida, including Hillsborough and Pinellas, have passed laws prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, throughout much of the state it is still legal to fire people or deny them housing for being gay or transgender. Earlier this year, a statewide antidiscrimination bill failed to make it out of its subcommittee.

"This ruling is an absolutely fantastic step forward," said Jim Brenner, a state forest service firefighter who sued Florida over state officials' refusal to recognize his marriage. "At the same time, you can get married today and fired tomorrow for being gay in Florida."

Quoting the rapper Macklemore, Brenner added: "A piece of paper isn't going to solve it all, but it's a d--n good place to start."

Times staff writers Waveney Ann Moore and Samantha Schmidt contributed to this report. Contact Anna M. Phillips at (813) 226-3354 or Follow @annamphillips.


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