For same-sex couples waiting, some of them for years, to wed in Florida, the big day came Monday.
The ban that had kept them from marrying met its end, perhaps permanently, in Miami-Dade County on Monday afternoon — and overnight elsewhere in the state — after a years-long battle over what advocates have called a fundamental civil right.
Crying tears of joy and relief, men and women who had challenged the ban leaped to their feet and shrieked with joy inside downtown Miami’s historic courthouse Monday morning when a judge ruled with little fanfare that the couples could marry right away. They would have otherwise had to wait until after midnight Tuesday, when another judge’s ruling took effect statewide.
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Outside the court, the plaintiffs clasped hands and raised their arms in victory.
“It’s been a very emotional year for all of us, and we can’t wait to get married — in about an hour, I hope,” said Catherina Pareto, of Coconut Grove, as she held on to her partner of 14 years, Karla Arguello. They wore cream-colored dresses picked out for the occasion.
It took a little longer, but Pareto and Arguello became the first same-sex couple married in Florida, wed in a swift ceremony surrounded by television crews and officiated by the same judge who ruled in their favor.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel also married another plaintiff couple, Jeff and Todd Delmay.
Twelve years ago, while on vacation in Hawaii, the Delmays — then Jeff Delsol and Todd May — bought $10 silver wedding bands they have worn on their right hands every since. On Monday, they switched the rings to their left hands once their union was legal.
“We have been reserving that spot for when it became official,” Todd Delmay said as he held his husband’s hand. “This means so much to us.”
The two men legally changed their surnames to the blended “Delmay” before their son was born. But they wanted to get married in the state they call home.
“We never for a second considered going anywhere else,” Jeff Delmay said.
Zabel declared Florida’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional in July. But she stayed her decision, pending appeal.
In August, U.S. District Judge Robert N. Hinkle of Tallahassee also overturned the ban. But Hinkle, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, stayed his decision till the end of the day Monday to provide time for legal appeals. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a Republican who vigorously defended the ban, sought extensions of the stay from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. Both turned her down.
Bondi’s office appeared to concede defeat Monday afternoon.
“The judge has ruled, and we wish these couples the best,” spokesman Whitney Ray said in a statement. He did not address whether Bondi would drop a pending federal appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court is still expected to rule on gay marriage nationwide, but the justices have let stand rulings from lower courts that overturned bans similar to Florida’s.
Zabel’s ruling came shortly after 11 a.m. from inside the Dade County Courthouse’s 6-1 courtroom, a renovated chamber with wood-carved ceilings and wall-mounted candelabras that seemed an appropriate setting for the momentous case.
Jeffrey Cohen, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, urged Zabel to let Miami-Dade start marrying same-sex couples immediately.
“Another day where the plaintiffs do not have equal rights is a day that shames our country,” he said.
Zabel then asked state Solicitor General Allen Winsor, who spoke by telephone, if there was any reason to wait until Tuesday: “In the big picture, does it really matter whether or not I lift the stay or leave it until tomorrow?”
“Not from our perspective,” Winsor said.
Zabel turned to the audience. “I’m lifting the stay,” she said. The courtroom erupted in cheers.
Harvey Ruvin, Miami-Dade’s elected clerk of courts, let couples apply for marriage licenses as soon as his office received a signed copy of Zabel’s two-page order. “Everyone will be treated equally,” said Ruvin, a Democrat.
Same-sex couples are now able to marry in 36 states and Washington D.C. Gay marriages performed outside Florida will also be recognized in the state.
Some Florida counties — including Broward and Monroe, which like Miami-Dade have sizable gay populations — began marrying gay couples at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. Several court clerks in conservative North Florida and the Tampa Bay area have stopped officiating weddings in their offices, in part to avoid marrying same-sex couples, although they will still have to issue licenses.
Sixty-two percent of Florida voters approved the 2008 gay-marriage ban as part of a ballot initiative organized by the Orlando-based Florida Family Policy Council. On Monday, John Stemberger, the organization’s director who led the 2008 effort, called the court decisions invalidating the ban “illegitimate” and said they will be reversed if the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the issue.
“Five million voters have been overthrown by a handful of lawyers in black robes, and I think this is not the way a democracy should work,” he said at a news conference in Tallahassee. “The judges that have found these new rights have made them up out of thin air. They have no history. They have no tradition in our country, and all of a sudden we’re redefining marriage.”
But Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of Equality Florida, an LGBT advocacy group, countered that fundamental rights are not up for a majority vote.
“Some of the proudest moments in our nation’s history have been when the courts stood up for the rights of minorities as Judge Zabel did today,” he said.
Last year, Zabel was the second state judge — after Luis Garcia in the Keys — to overturn the 2008 amendment that required marriages to be between a man and a woman. Four South Florida judges sided with same-sex couples who either sought to marry or divorce, or to have the state recognize their out-of-state marriage. The other two judges hailed from Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Judge Garcia vacated his own stay Monday afternoon, but made the order effective at midnight. The office of Monroe County Clerk Amy Heavilin, a Republican, planned to open 12:01 a.m. to marry 100 couples. First in line: Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones of Key West, who filed the case that prompted Garcia’s ruling.
“By refusing to intervene, the higher courts have allowed Judge Hinkle’s ruling to take full effect,” Garcia wrote Monday. “As a result, the law of the land in Florida is that the ban on same-sex marriage, as codified in statutes and the Florida Constitution, is in contravention of the rights insured by the United States Constitution and is thus unenforceable.”
Broward Clerk Howard Forman, a Democrat, also planned to grant licenses beginning at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, with a mass wedding scheduled for 3 a.m. The Broward County Commission plans to proclaim Tuesday “Marriage Equality Day.”
Zabel ruled in favor of six same-sex couples from Miami-Dade and Broward, and the LGBT-rights group Equality Florida Institute, who sued last Jan. 21. They were the first plaintiffs to challenge Florida’s ban in court.
On Monday, Zabel kept her decision short: “The Clerk of the Court is hereby authorized to issue marriage licenses forthwith to prospective spouses of the same gender,” she wrote.
In addition to Pareto and Arguello and the Delmays, the other plaintiff couples were Jorge Diaz and Don Price Johnston of Miami; Dr. Juan Carlos Rodriguez and David Price of Davie; Vanessa and Melanie Alenier of Hollywood, and Summer Greene and Pamela Faerber of Plantation.
They were represented by several local attorneys, as well as other lawyers in Tampa and Orlando and the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco.
One of the center’s attorneys, Shannon Minter, called Monday “a pivotal moment not just for Miami, but for the entire country.”
“Florida is a bellwether state, and I can think of no more encouraging sign as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to decide whether to resolve this issue for the entire country,” he said. Minter noted that there are similar upcoming cases in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
But on Monday, the focus was on Miami-Dade and its newlyweds.
Pareto’s and Arguello’s mothers, who accompanied their daughters to Monday’s hearing, later stood on chairs to see over the crowd as their daughters signed their marriage license. Ruvin’s office had no time Monday to print new applications, so Pareto signed as “groom” and Arguello as “bride.”
“Take lots of pictures,” said Marlene Pareto, who was tearing up. “My daughter looks prettier today than ever.”
Miami Herald staff writers Audra D.S. Burch and Carli Teproff contributed to this report from Miami, and Herald/Times bureau staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Michael Van Sickler contributed from Tallahassee.