Gay activists seek to reverse Florida’s 2008 same-sex marriage ban

Miami political consultant Vanessa Brito, who successfully ran the 2011 campaign to recall longtime Miami-Dade Commissioner Natacha Seijas, on Friday filed paperwork to put gay marriage back on the Florida ballot in 2014.

The petition seeks to change Florida’s definition of marriage from "one man and one woman, as husband and wife" to "a union of two persons," said Brito, a lesbian activist and co-chair of Equal Marriage Florida, a new political action committee.

"We submit the petition today and the state has seven days to approve the language for a proposed referendum," said Brito, a former board member of Unity Coalition, a gay Hispanic activist group in Miami-Dade County.

Equal Marriage Florida’s initial goal: 68,351 signatures by Aug. 1.

Brito says the group will gather signatures from Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties "through and into the I-4 corridor."

If Equal Marriage Florida gathers enough names, it will have until Feb. 1 to get 681,000 signatures. "Our goal is to get a million signatures, because obviously not all will be valid," Brito said.

Equal Marriage Florida hopes to raise and spend $6 million for the petition drive, she said.

If all goes as planned, a statewide referendum would be held Nov. 2014, the same time voters cast ballots for governor.

Five years ago, just under 62 percent of Florida voters passed Amendment 2, which defined marriage as a union only between one man and one woman, and also banned civil unions. Sixty percent of Florida voters would need to repeal the constitutional ban.

Public Policy Polling, which surveyed 500 Florida voters from March 15-18, found 75 percent in support of either gay marriage or civil unions. Among Democrats, 48 percent support gay marriage. A poll released by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that 54 percent of Florida voters favor same-sex marriage. Nationwide, a Washington Post-ABC poll found more than 80 percent of voters under 30 favor same-sex marriage.

Earlier this week, Equality Florida, the state’s largest gay-rights organization, and the national Freedom to Marry group announced Get Engaged, an unrelated educational effort to boost marriage equality in Florida.

It is legal for same-sex couples to marry in 11 states and the District of Columbia. On July 1, Delaware will become the 12th state.

The Supreme Court is expected to announce any day whether it will toss a portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the part that prohibits the federal government from recognizing legal same-sex marriages performed in and out of the United States.

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, stressed that even if the Supreme Court requires the federal government to recognize legal marriages between same-sex couples, they still would be allowed to wed in Florida.

It is also unclear whether couples legally married in places like New York or Massachusetts would receive federal benefits if they live in states like Florida.

"To be clear, no one knows what the Supreme Court is going to do," Smith said. "A lot of very smart people that watch the Supreme Court tell us that it’s going to be a mixed bag, that we shouldn’t hold out any hope for an absolute grand-slam home run that eliminates all the state bans as well as toppling the federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act."

John Stemberger, who ran the 2008 Amendment 2 campaign from his Orlando law firm, said it’s unlikely Florida voters would reverse themselves on gay marriage.

“There’s not much that can be done. The people of Florida have spoken in an active, direct democracy, in a supermajority, and have codified the amendment into Florida law," Stemberger said. "We would love to engage in some kind of discourse. To the extent that the polls have been moving against us, it’s because we haven’t had the opportunity to air our arguments in the public square. I would love to see some kind of formal debate or panel discussion that’s civil, in a neutral setting, without people ganging up screaming at you."

Smith said Wednesday it’s too soon to know whether 2014 would be the right time to put gay marriage back on the ballot.

Brito says it is, that voters would reject the gay ban — but only if Libertarians and moderate Republicans are on board. Gary Johnson, Republican governor of New Mexico from 1994-2003 and a Libertarian presidential candidate in 2012, is Equal Marriage Florida’s honorary co-chair.

The campaign will focus on younger voters, said Brito, age 30.

"It’s our generation, the people in their 30s, the voters in their 30s," she said.

Brito believes that many conservative voters quietly support marriage equality.

"What are the two most personal things a person does? Who they pray to and who they sleep with," Brito said. "There’s something to be said about what happens in the ballot box in private."