Everything You Need to Know Now About Marriage Equality in Florida

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What's Going on in Florida?

Marriage equality arrived throughout the state of Florida at 12:01 a.m. January 6, when a stay on U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle's pro-equality decision from August expired. Less than 24 hours earlier, same-sex couples in Miami-Dade County began marrying, after a state judge lifted a similar stay she had imposed on her own pro-equality ruling in a separate case.

Although same-sex couples are marrying in the Sunshine State, there are still several cases being appealed at the state and federal level. Florida's Republican attorney general, Pam Bondi, has fought to prevent marriage equality at every turn — even asking the U.S. Supreme Court to delay the start of marriage equality statewide. After considering the issue, the Supreme Court denied that request December 19, clearing the way for same-sex couples to wed in Florida beginning in January. 

In the days leading up to the start of marriages, there were conflicting opinions about exactly what the law required, but Judge Hinkle clarified on New Year's Day that the U.S. Constitution requires clerks to issue licenses.

There are several marriage equality cases under way in Florida, the most important being a federal case known as Brenner v. Scott. (The plaintiffs in that case are pictured above — from left: Steve Schlairet, Chuck Jones, James Brenner, Ozzie Russ.) That's the case on which Judge Hinkle ruled in August, and which the state of Florida is technically still appealing. In addition, four judges have ruled against the marriage ban in state courts.

While all those decisions are still under appeal, Attorney General Bondi — who herself has an unusual living situation with a romantic partner — offered the first indication that her office may be throwing in the towel on fighting equality when it issued a brief statement regarding the beginning of same-sex marriage in the state. 

"The judge has ruled, and we wish these couples the best," Bondi's press secretary told The Associated Press in an email Tuesday.

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What Happens Next?

Marriage equality is now the law of the land throughout Florida, though as many as 14 counties — mostly in the northern "panhandle" region of the state — have decided to stop performing courthouse weddings for any couples, rather than see county officials perform same-sex marriages. As of Tuesday, counties that confirmed they would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples but not perform the ceremonies (requiring couples to seek an outside notary to solemnize their marriage) included Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Holmes, Washington, Jackson, Calhoun, Liberty, Franklin, Wakulla, Baker, Clay, Duval, and Pasco, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The newspaper also noted that Bay County's website indicates that it no longer offers marriages, though it's unclear when that policy took effect.

Meanwhile, the Brenner case will continue through the federal court system. There is currently no timeline for oral arguments or a decision. But the fact that the 11th Circuit (pictured above) allowed the stay to expire may indicate that the judges expect marriage equality has come to Florida for good, seeing no harm in allowing couples to wed early.

If the 11th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court reverses Judge Hinkle, it could mean an end to marriage in Florida until equality organizers can overturn the marriage bans legislatively.

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How Do Floridians Feel About Marriage?

Pictured above: Vanessa Alenier (center left, with hand up) and Melanie Leon Alenier (center right, in skirt) walk out of the Miami-Dade Courthouse July 2.

Public support for marriage equality has surged over the last decade. In 2004, Schroth and Associates measured support at just 27 percent, to 65 percent opposed. As recently as 2011, Public Policy Polling showed support at 37 percent to the opposition's 53 percent. 

But in early 2014, the portion supporting marriage equality had jumped to 47 percent, with just 44 percent opposed in the same PPP survey. A staggering 75 percent of Floridians supported either civil unions or marriage equality for same-sex couples, according to PPP. 

In addition, numerous newspapers and reporters have editorialized that the state should abandon its attempts to defend the marriage ban.

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What Are the Arguments for Marriage Equality?

Pictured above: Gabriel Garcia-Vera joins with others to show their support of the same-sex couples seeking recognition of their marriages at the Miami-Dade Courthouse July 2.

The Florida cases are similar to other recent marriage equality cases, claiming that marriage is a fundamental right and that same-sex marriage bans violate the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Hinkle agreed with those arguments in unusually strong terms. He compared Florida's ban on marriage for gay and lesbian couples to racist  laws against miscegenation (interracial marriage), writing, "When observers look back 50 years from now, the arguments supporting Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage, though just as sincerely held, will again seem an obvious pretext for discrimination. Observers who are not now of age will wonder just how those views could have been held."

He also agreed that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled multiple times that marriage is a fundamental right for all Americans, not just for heterosexual people. 

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What Are the Arguments Against Marriage Equality?

Pictured above: Opponents of same-sex marriage yell at Howard Brownstein, who is showing them his wedding ring to demonstrate his support of marriage equality in front of the Miami-Dade Courthouse.

The state of Florida has used the same failing, discredited arguments as every other state still defending marriage bans.

What's unusual in Florida is the persistence of Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has had to file a flurry of briefs in state and federal court to try to keep gay and lesbian couples from marrying.

"States have virtually exclusive authority to define and regulate marriage," she wrote in one brief. "No fundamental right is at issue here because same-sex marriage is not deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition."

Bondi — who has been twice divorced herself — may not really believe that her state should be able to violate the U.S. Constitution when it comes to marriage, though she's doing her due diligence as a conservative Republican and fighting marriage equality tooth and nail. But as numerous federal courts have ruled, it doesn't matter whether same-sex marriage is deeply rooted in the nation's history; all that matters is that marriage is deeply rooted.

The arguments employed by Florida have already failed in virtually every other federal court where they've been heard, and Bondi is unlikely to meet with much success in any hearing before the 11th Circuit. Within the next few months, we may finally see legal arguments about "preserving marriage" and "encouraging responsible procreation" put to rest for good. 

But that doesn't mean antigay officials won't continue to scramble for reasons to deny same-sex couples access to their constitutionally guaranteed rights. The clerk of court in Pasco County — the only county outside the Florida panhandle where officials are refusing to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies  — said her office was overburdened by a construction boom but also that many of her employees opposed same-sex marriage on religious grounds and were "uncomfortable" fulfilling their duties by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. 

"The problem is we can't discriminate," Pasco County clerk of court Paula O'Neil told the Tampa Bay Times. "So there are some [employees] who would have wanted to transfer to another area [of duty], and we can't transfer everyone."

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