As he considers a presidential run, Jeb Bush is not offering encouraging words about same-sex marriages coming to his home state.
"It ought be a local decision. I mean, a state decision," the former governor said Sunday in a brief interview. "The state decided. The people of the state decided. But it's been overturned by the courts, I guess."
His comments to the Miami Herald after a round of golf in Coral Gables tracked past statements by the Republican, who has said the gay-marriage question should be decided at the state level. But with Miami-Dade County ready to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples as early as Monday if a judge approves — and the rest of the state following on Tuesday — the historic change is bound to bring even more attention to Bush's somewhat guarded take on gay rights.
As governor, he was against same-sex marriage but wasn't publicly enthusiastic about the successful 2008 campaign to rewrite the Florida Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Bush, who left office in 2007, said the change wasn't needed, since state law already restricted marriage to heterosexual couples. Two years ago, he suggested in a PBS interview that gay parents could be held up as role models, even as he said "traditional marriage is what should be sanctioned" by the government.
In the 2012 interview, Bush told Charlie Rose that "if people love their children with all their heart and soul and that's what they do and that's how they organize their life, that should be held up as an example to others, because we need it." In a speech to a Republican group last year, Bush warned against being a party seen as against too many things, including being "anti-gay."
Recent polls show Bush, who lives in Coral Gables, is a top-tier contender for the 2016 GOP nomination. One of the big questions facing his potential candidacy is whether he'll be seen as conservative enough for right-leaning voters that are key to the Republican nominating process as well as moderate enough to capture the middle of the electorate that decides tight general elections.
The leader of a group fighting Florida's gay-marriage restrictions criticized Bush's Sunday comments as endorsing discrimination.
"So the people should have the right to enact a discriminatory law?" said Howard Simon, director of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the same-sex couples in the federal case against Florida's gay-marriage amendment. "That sounds like what he was saying. That unfortunately is consistent from what I remember about Jeb Bush's tenure as governor."
In August, a federal judge in Tallahassee ruled Florida's 2008 marriage amendment violated the constitutional rights of same-sex couples. The judge, Robert L. Hinkle, stayed his own ruling until the end of the day Jan. 5 to allow for appeals. Both a federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down requests from Florida's attorney general to extend the stay until the appeal is heard.
On New Year's Day, Hinkle told county clerks throughout Florida that they would be violating the U.S. Constitution if they did not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples once his order took effect Jan. 6. The ruling stopped short of ordering clerks to issue the licenses after the self-imposed stay on his order expires.
The Hinkle ruling is at the forefront of Florida's fast-moving stream of gay-marriage cases, which have produced four other favorable rulings for same-sex marriage in state court.
In July, a state judge in Miami-Dade, Sarah Zabel, ruled that Florida's marriage amendment violated constitutional rights and ordered Miami-Dade to issue marriage licenses to six same-sex couples who had sued to marry. Like Hinkle, she stayed her own ruling to allow for appeals.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has vigorously defended Florida's gay-marriage ban, appealing Zabel's ruling, a similar one in Monroe County and others. But with no appeal hearings pending, Florida's gay-marriage ban is set to end once the Hinkle stay expires at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
Zabel has scheduled a Monday hearing to decide whether to lift the stay on her July decision. Miami-Dade's elected clerk, Harvey Ruvin, says his office will begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples Monday if the judge lifts her stay. That would make same-sex marriage legal in only in Zabel's circuit, Miami-Dade County, hours before the Hinkle ruling would strike down the gay-marriage ban statewide.
If Zabel does not lift her stay, marriage licenses would be available to same-sex couples Tuesday morning in Miami-Dade under Hinkle's statewide order, Ruvin said. Ruvin plans to open his office at 9 a.m., but clerks in Broward and Monroe, each with outsized gay communities, plan to open their doors at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
Bondi is appealing Hinkle's ruling to the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta, so future rulings by that panel or by the U.S. Supreme Court could still overturn the decision. But legal observers see the Supreme Court as sympathetic to the gay-marriage argument after a landmark 2013 decision that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and its more recent refusal to hear appeals from states that have had gay-marriage bans thrown out by lower courts.
"We are very confident the culture is changing, and the law is changing in this country," Simon said.
Last month, the Supreme Court also declined Bondi's request to extend Hinkle's suspension of his order striking down the gay-marriage ban, though the high court has not ruled on the merits of the case. The Dec. 19 rejection by the high court sparked the flurry of moves by clerks in South Florida to ready for the enactment of Hinkle's order once his stay expires.
While Bush described the arrival of gay marriages as overturning Florida's decision on marriage rights, the county's senior elected Republican on Sunday endorsed striking down the same-sex bans.
A spokesman for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Gimenez backs allowing same-sex couples to marry.
"Mayor Gimenez supports the recent court rulings," said Michael Hernández, communications chief for Gimenez, who has already endorsed transgender protections in Miami-Dade and won the backing of the county's top gay-rights group when he first ran for mayor in 2011. "He believes adults should be free to marry whomever they desire. He respects anyone's right to marry, gay or straight."