After DOMA: Now What? Panel requests call to action

By : David Thomas Moran
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As LGBTQ Americans across the country continue to celebrate the June 26 Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the immediate future of marriage equality in Florida looks bleak. Even so, a call to action is growing state-wide to bring about change.

According to panelists at the “After DOMA: Now What” forum held at The Abbey in Downtown Orlando on July 17, Florida marriage equality still has some significant hurdles to overcome even with success of defeating DOMA and Proposition 8.

The panel, comprised of local attorneys, CPAs and activists, fielded a variety of questions about immigration visas, taxes, veteran benefits, estate planning and the legality of marriage licenses from other states.

“I hate to be the downer in the group [but in Florida] your [out-of-state] marriage certificate doesn’t mean a whole lot,” said Orlando civil rights attorney Mary Meeks, responding to a couple who were just married in Washington D.C.

Meeks said the DOMA decision brought about three positive changes for Florida LGBTQ couples: 1) immigration rights, 2) same-sex partner benefits for civilian and military employees of the Department of Defense, and 3) same-sex partner benefits for federal employees.

A recurrent answer to the questions asked by audience members was “we don’t know yet” or “it depends,” but many of the forum’s panelists still remained optimistic about Florida’s future.

Marriage provides 1,148 different legal rights to a couple which are administered by varying federal agencies. According to Meeks, it is going to take some time for such agencies to evaluate and fully implement the DOMA decision.

Some marriage rights are specifically contingent on the couple’s place of domicile or residency, including some veteran benefits and the right to divorce.

Bi-national Florida LGBTQ couples are already experiencing direct benefits from the DOMA ruling. One of the first same-sex couples granted an immigration visa resides in South Florida.

Orlando immigration attorney Henry Lim said the federal government is moving quickly in regards to immigration rights. “There have already been green cards granted. [The DOMA ruling] also applies to not only immigrant visas but everything else related to [immigration] spousal rights, even fiancé petitions,” said Lim.

The panel seemed to collectively agree that it will be a matter of years before marriage equality becomes a reality in Florida.

Meeks said the most likely path to marriage equality in the state will be through the courts. However, she said the 11th circuit federal court, which presides over the state of Florida, is one of the most conservative and anti-gay courts in the country.

“The conventional wisdom is that it would be a bad idea to file a lawsuit right now,” said Meeks. “We need to be strategic and unified. We need to create the right conditions to convince our very conservative, anti-gay court to rule the right way.”

Meeks said currently other states have a better chance of successfully challenging state bans on gay marriage that would set a precedent to help ensure a successful court challenge in Florida.

Outside of the courts, Florida’s state legislature has refused to even consider a bill for a state-wide domestic partnership registry let alone marriage rights. Some are calling for a state-wide referendum to go on the ballot in 2014 or 2016 to change Florida’s marriage laws.

However, such a referendum would require 60% of voters to approve the measure. Statistician Nate Silver, according to Meeks, estimates that 60% of Florida voters would not approve such a change in law until 2020.

Though there is much uncertainty and little change in Florida marriage laws for LGBTQ couples, Meeks, Lim and other panelists encouraged Florida residents to stay and fight.

“We live in a very exciting time”¦I never imagined that [what the Supreme Court did] was even possible,” said Orlando attorney and Watermark publisher Tom Dyer. “I share your outrage. Don’t suffer silently. It isn’t fair that you can be in 13 other states and be fully married and have your humanity recognized but not in Florida.”

Equality Florida is spearheading “A Path to Marriage Equality in Florida,” an action plan in collaboration with local and national LGBTQ organizations. Meeks said that Equality Florida is also currently laying the foundation for an eventual court case in Florida. They have already put out a call for potential plaintiffs and launched the “Get Engaged” campaign.

Meeks also added that in addition to fighting for marriage equality in the courts, it is critical that Floridians also continue to push simultaneously for a state-wide domestic partnership registry, in the meantime. Though such a registry only affords approximately 1% of marriage rights, she said a DPR is more feasible and would be better than no protections at all.

Most of those who attended the forum appeared to leave with hope and a call to action.

Recently married Winter Park couple William Baxter, 73, and Peter Rocchio, 78, said they were extremely happy with what they learned at the forum and felt energized to keep fighting for marriage equality.

The couple ended their 45-year engagement on July 12 when they were married at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. among close friends and family.

Randy Stephens, The Executive Director of the GLBT Community of Central Florida (The Center Orlando), and Mikael Audebert, the President of the Metropolitan Business Association ““ Orlando’s LGBT Chamber of Commerce (MBA), co-moderated the discussion.

The Center, Come Out with Pride Orlando, MBA Orlando, Equality Florida and Artful Events hosted the forum.

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