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  1. Florida Politics

Tampa, St. Petersburg supporting lawsuits in favor of same-sex marriage

Aaron Huntsman, left, and William Lee Jones embrace during a celebration July 17 in Key West  after a Florida Keys judge ruled against Florida's ban on same-sex marriage.
Aaron Huntsman, left, and William Lee Jones embrace during a celebration July 17 in Key West after a Florida Keys judge ruled against Florida's ban on same-sex marriage.
Published Sep. 28, 2014

Tampa and St. Petersburg are joining a growing number of Florida cities that support lawsuits seeking to overturn the state's ban on same-sex marriage.

"I support gay marriage," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said last week.

"This is about fundamental fairness," St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said. "Several courts have already weighed in and indicated that the state law was not constitutional. I personally am hoping that decision gets upheld. I find it to be an incredible waste of taxpayers' dollars that the state continues to fight this."

For Buckhorn — though not Kriseman — this is a change in position.

In 2012, the day after President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to say same-sex couples should be able to get married, Buckhorn couldn't say he agreed.

"I'm not sure I'm entirely there yet," he told the Tampa Bay Times then, though he was on that path.

At the time, he had signed a local law creating the Tampa Bay area's first domestic partnership registry. He was comfortable with civil unions.

And he said support for gay marriage was "an issue that we're going to have to deal with as a country, and certainly public opinion is trending that way as people get more and more comfortable with it."

Last week, he said his position has evolved, "like many Americans'."

"As mayor, I have a responsibility to make sure that our community treats everyone fairly," he said.

That includes setting a tone so that everyone knows that the community values their relationships and their identity, he said. The message seems to be getting out. Last year, the Washington, D.C.,-based Human Rights Campaign ranked Tampa first among 15 Florida cities on promoting equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

Buckhorn, a Democrat and a Catholic, acknowledged that his position as mayor "will put me at odds with some of the teachings of the Catholic Church," but "my faith and my job are two separate things."

Equality Florida co-founder Nadine Smith said the change in Buckhorn's position represents "the natural progression of standing up for something you believe."

"When you say, 'Not yet,' you're there," she said, but "you're not ready to give up all the ghosts of your past, all the remnants of your ideas that were handed to you and that you never really examined."

Miami Beach has written what's known as an amicus curiae brief to support overturning the state's ban in at least seven different court cases now pending around Florida.

The brief argues that Florida's ban on gay marriage hurts citizens' health and welfare, undermines the work of local governments as employers and costs communities money in lost tourism.

On the other side, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has defended the ban, which was added to Florida's Constitution by 62 percent of voters in 2008.

In May, a pleading filed by her office said, in part, that "disrupting Florida's existing marriage laws would impose significant public harm."

After opponents seized on that language, her office said it meant that Florida is harmed when federal courts keep the state from enforcing its laws.

Bondi's office argued in the same document that the state's marriage laws are tied to "society's legitimate interest in increasing the likelihood that children will be born to and raised by the mothers and fathers who produced them in stable and enduring family units."

Bondi has since said she's not against gay adoption though she declines to say if she supports gay marriage. Rather, she says she has a sworn duty to uphold the state Constitution, so she has to defend the ban.

In recent months, three judges have struck down Florida's ban. A fourth ruled that a same-sex couple married in Delaware had to be recognized as married in Palm Beach County after one man died and left the other property there. A fifth declared the marriage ban unconstitutional, but later vacated his ruling because of a procedural flaw in the case.

In response, Bondi has appealed some of the rulings and has asked state judges to put the cases on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the issue.

Against that backdrop, the St. Petersburg City Council voted on Sept. 4 to add its name to Miami Beach's brief.

The Tampa City Council has scheduled its own discussion of the issue for Thursday, though Buckhorn's go-ahead already has cleared the way to add Tampa's name, too.

St. Petersburg and Tampa are joining Orlando, Broward County, Wilton Manors and Biscayne Park, according to Miami Beach senior assistant city attorney Robert Rosenwald Jr.

Gulfport has passed a resolution supporting overturning the ban, but it has not discussed putting its name on Miami Beach's brief, city attorney Andrew Salzman said.

Now that he has made the decision to support gay marriage, Buckhorn was asked what he would say to Bondi, a longtime friend whom he has supported politically.

He laughed.

"I can only lead by example," Buckhorn said. "Everyone has to come to their own decision, some through a longer journey than others. I'm ever hopeful that others will, like the majority of the country."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.