A Miami-Dade judge declared Florida’s gay-marriage ban unconstitutional on Friday, in a sweeping ruling that cut a wide swath through American history — from the Declaration of Independence to slavery to Jim Crow to equality for women to old bans on interracial marriage — as much as it drew from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Preventing same-sex couples from marrying, Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel said, “serves only to hurt, to discriminate, to deprive same-sex couples and their families of equal dignity, to label and treat them as second-class citizens, and to deem them unworthy of participation in one of the fundamental institutions of our society.”
Zabel was the second South Florida judge in eight days to declare that Florida’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage violates the U.S. Constitution’s
Last week, a Keys judge also ruled the ban unconstitutional. That ruling was stayed when the state attorney general’s office appealed, and Zabel stayed her own order Friday pending appeal, saying she understood her decision would not be the “final word” on the issue.
In the Miami case, six same-sex couples sued Miami-Dade County Clerk Harvey Ruvin for marriage licenses in January.
“I’m excited. I’m thrilled. My phone has blown up with text and emails of congratulations. I’m elated,” one of the plaintiffs, Jorge Isaias Diaz, said Friday evening. “We came into this knowing it probably would go the long haul. We’re confident justice will prevail and we will go as far as we need to go.”
Diaz and his partner, Don Price Johnston, of Miami, sued, along with Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello of Coconut Grove; Dr. Juan Carlos Rodriguez and David Price of Davie; Vanessa and Melanie Alenier of Hollywood; Todd and Jeff Delmay of Hollywood, and Summer Greene and Pamela Faerber of Plantation.
Equality Florida Institute, a statewide gay-rights group, also is a plaintiff in the case.
“It’s a beautiful opinion,” Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith said. “[Judge Zabel] states so clearly and so powerfully that marriage is a fundamental right and that denial is a violation of our constitutional rights and our dignity.”
In Zabel’s ruling, she cited Loving vs. Virginia, a 1967 case brought by Mildred Loving, a black woman, and her white husband, Richard. Their marriage violated Virginia’s miscegenation law.
“We’ve said all along that the Loving case is parallel to our case,” Price said. “It just shows that discrimination against any class of people is nothing more and nothing less than discrimination. The U.S. society has no stomach for discriminating against anyone.”
In 2008, about 62 percent of Florida voters voted to amend the state constitution and define marriage as between one man and one woman.
John Stemberger, who led the 2008 campaign, said Friday that Zabel’s ruling is wrong.
“Wow,” said Stemberger, president and general counsel of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council in Orlando. “Race and ethnicity are not an inherent property of marriage. Gender, however, is an inherent property of marriage. This is why her reliance on Loving is misplaced. Loving in essence said any man can marry any woman irrespective of race and ethnicity.”
Smith, whose father is black and mother is biracial, said the two cases are the same.
“If you listen to the language of the opposition, even the comments of Marco Rubio [who Thursday spoke out against gay marriage during a speech at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.], they’re saying that some couples are inferior and to be denied access to marriage,” Smith said. “That is at heart of laws banning interracial marriage.”
The gay-marriage battle is being waged across the nation. A federal judge this week ruled Colorado’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. According to the group Freedom to Marry, LGBT advocates have won more than 20 times in federal, state and appellate courts since June 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Edith Windsor, a lesbian widow, and threw out a key portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
The high court, however, did not address whether state marriage bans are legal.
“Judge Zabel’s corrupt decision today is simply illegitimate,” said Anthony Verdugo, president of the conservative Christian Family Coalition. “It goes against Windsor because Windsor says the states have the right to regulate marital relations. It goes against that precedent. She has inserted herself into that federal document to overthrow eight million votes. Voter rights is a fundamental freedom. She has overthrown and violated voter rights.”
In her ruling, Zabel addressed the issue of state’s rights:
“As with all fundamental rights, marriage is subject to regulation by the States,” Zabel wrote. “However, ‘a state's broad authority to regulate matters of state concern does not include the power to violate an individual's protected constitutional rights.’”
Elizabeth Schwartz, a Miami Beach lawyer for the six Miami-Dade couples, said Zabel’s ruling “makes it crystal clear why the Florida marriage bans are unconstitutional.”
“Judge Zabel considered, enumerated and rejected the meritless arguments of the anti-equality forces. We’re anxious to move forward to appeal on the strength of this soaring order.”
The Miami-Dade case mirrors a suit in Monroe County, in which two Key West men, Huntsman and Jones, successfully sued County Clerk Amy Heavilin in April for a marriage license, saying Florida’s ban violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause.
After Garcia ruled in favor of Huntsman and Jones, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi swiftly announced she would appeal. Her office issued a statement saying that “with many similar cases pending throughout the entire country, finality on this constitutional issue must come from the U.S. Supreme Court.”
By filing the appeal notice, Bondi triggered the automatic stay in the case.
This week, lawyers for Huntsman and Jones asked Garcia to lift the stay. He declined, as did Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal, which now has the case.
It’s likely the Miami-Dade and Monroe cases will be appealed together.
“Right now the couples are celebrating and we’ll have time to sort through what the appeals process holds,” Smith said.