Three gay couples in Tampa and Orlando, Fla., sued to overturn Florida's ban on same-sex marriages on Monday. Sue Clayton and Sheila Serrao of Sarasota sued Hillsborough County clerk of court Richard Ake for enforcing the state law after they were denied a marriage license. Their attorney, Ellis Rubin, has represented other gay and lesbian couples in similar lawsuits in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. Later in the day, two gay couples in Orlando, James Merritt and Albert Leach Jr., and Alvie Beckham and Mack Wright, filed a similar lawsuit against Orange County clerk of courts Lydia Gardner.
Merritt and Leach, who have been together for nine years, tried to get a marriage license the day before Valentine's Day but were turned away by clerks at the Orange County Courthouse. Beckham and Wright weren't present Monday at the filing of the lawsuit. "We don't think there is anything that our marriage can do to harm marriage as it currently exists today," Merritt, a minister at the Joy Metropolitan Community Church in Orlando, said before filing the lawsuit. "It is not OK for the Florida legislature or the governor or the president of the United States to legislate how we can love each other."
The suits come as the U.S. Senate is debating an amendment that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. President Bush used his radio address on Saturday to seek support for the amendment; he contended that legalizing marriage for same-sex couples would cut the institution off from its moral and religious meanings and weaken it for all.
Flanked by both local and national gay rights activists at a news conference, Rubin said the lawsuit asks a judge to declare Florida's ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional. "Let the word go out from Tampa to the rest of the nation that an idea whose time has come cannot be stopped," he said. Florida law defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Ake said clerks have no choice but to deny same-sex couples a marriage license. "The statute is very clear," he said. "It's not a judgment issue, and it's not a moral issue."
Matt Staver, an attorney with the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel and one of the authors of Florida's Defense of Marriage Act, said he does not think the lawsuits will succeed. Florida's law, passed in 1997, wasn't challenged until this year, and Staver said the state constitution's guarantee of the right to privacy doesn't cover marriage, which is a public act with public consequences. Staver said that's why there are limits placed on marriage, such as barring people from having more than one spouse or marrying a close family relative. Rubin "is actually hurting the same-sex movement by filing these lawsuits," Staver said. "He creates more impetus to support the national amendment."
Clayton and Serrao have been a couple for nine years, having met at church. They had a commitment ceremony in a church six years ago, during which Serrao said she wore a white gown and her father walked her down the aisle in what she calls her "dream wedding." The women said they do not believe their marriage would lessen the value of heterosexual unions nor that it should play a role in what they see as their right to marry. The couple, who were also denied a license in Sarasota County, said they are
seeking the same legal benefits of marriage, including Social Security, tax deductions, and rights of survivorship, that are automatically afforded to men and women who marry. "The fact that we are two women does not diminish our love, nor does it diminish God's love for us," said Clayton, a librarian.
The lawsuit also took on political overtones as both Rubin and gay rights activists pledged that such cases would help mobilize votes against Bush in his reelection campaign. California gay rights activist Robin Tyler, executive director of the gay marriage campaign DontAmend.com, said Bush is pushing the constitutional amendment only to score political points with religious conservatives. "We are not a movement fighting for our lifestyles, we are fighting for our lives," she said. "We will not stop suing; we will sue all over the country. This administration does not scare us."