Florida’s path to marriage equality could overcome a major hurdle this month. July 2, courts prepare to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the state’s 2008 amendment banning same-sex unions.
A state trial court in Miami heard an oral argument on a motion filed in May by six same-sex couples and the Equality Florida Institute challenging Florida laws barring same-sex couples from marrying. The couples asked the court to strike down the state’s marriage ban and order the state to allow same-sex couples to wed.
The plaintiffs argue that Florida’s ban on marriage equality cannot stand in light of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in June 2013 that the federal Defense of Marriage Act violates the federal constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process. The plaintiffs’ motion notes that every court to consider these federal constitutional claims since last summer’s Supreme Court decision has ruled in favor of the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, including federal courts in Utah, Ohio, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
While no one can predict with 100% certainty which way the court will rule, supporters of marriage equality are hopeful Florida will follow the lead of 20 other states who have ruled their respective marriage bans as unconstitutional.
Since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision, states across the country have embraced marriage equality. And while many of those decisions included a stay, preventing gay couples from marrying right away, the path is clearing for full marriage recognition in this country.
Several governors and attorney generals of both political parties have decided not to fight the rulings. And Florida democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist filed a brief June 27 asking Florida’s courts to overturn the ban.
“Our society has evolved and moved past the prejudices rooted in our past,” Crist wrote in the brief. “Science has uniformly reached the conclusion that heterosexual marriages are just as valued and revered as they have ever been…and children raised by gay and lesbian parents fare just as well as kids raised in straight families.”
Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi, however, has a difference of opinion. She has vowed to defend the ban on marriage equality in her state. Bondi filed two separate motions—one against a lawsuit in the Miami-Dade circuit court and the other in the Monroe circuit court—to intervene in lawsuits June 24, which is in addition to her already representing the state against a federal lawsuit filed in North Florida.
Bondi has been under heavy criticism lately for fighting marriage equality. In an early motion, her office said that the overturning of the state’s ban would significantly affect already existing laws on marriage and cause “public harm.”
Florida Solicitor General Allen Winsor stated in the motions that because both lawsuits challenge the 2008 constitutional amendment that bans recognition of same-sex marriages and was voted on by a large majority, the state has a legitimate interest in intervening in both cases.
While Bondi’s opposition to marriage equality isn’t news to those fighting for it, her stance to vigorously defend Florida’s position is disappointing.
“It is disappointing that at a time when attorneys general and governors across the country are refusing to defend these discriminatory marriage bans, Bondi has decided to pour state resources into defending the indefensible,” said Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith in a statement. “In decisions by judges appointed by both Democrats and Republicans, court after court has determined that barring loving same sex couples from marriage is unconstitutional, and we look forward to hearing from Florida’s courts in the near future. This latest development shows just how out of touch Pam Bondi and the Rick Scott administration are with the majority of Florida voters.”
Other conservatives aren’t thrilled with the possibility of same-sex couples finally gaining marriage equality in Florida, either. On June 3, a judge ruled that anti-gay groups Florida Family Action Inc., Florida Democratic League and People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality—all who support the state’s ban on marriage equality and were represented by the Liberty Counsel—cannot intervene in Pareto v. Ruvin. However, they were permitted to file amicus curiae briefs in the case. Amicus curiae, which literally translates to “friend of the court” describes a brief from someone who is not party to a court case but who wishes to offer information.
They filed such a brief in June, which argues that the plaintiffs have not provided sufficient arguments that the state constitutional amendment added by voters in 2008, the marriage equality ban, is unconstitutional. It also argues that marriage, as defined by the union of one man and one woman, is optimal for children, fosters true equality and recognizes the “inherent value of the sexes.”
Lastly, the brief claims that “physical and psychological harms caused by homosexual conduct provide more than rational basis for not condoning such conduct in law.”
Despite Bondi’s plan to defend the ban and the conservative opposition to it being overturned, supporters of equality are optimistic. And if Florida’s ruling follows those of other states, it could have a significant impact on a St. Petersburg couple.
Cindy Bonsigniore and Diane Boule held their wedding ceremony on July 2. The date marks their eighth anniversary. The couple, who own The Massage Spa on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, were legally married in New York last December.
Their union has a very real possibility of getting legal recognition in their home state, which is another example of the planets aligning in their favor.
A cosmic coupling
The idea of “the planets lining up” is an often-quoted cliché. But one would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling example of the concept than Bonsignioreand Boule.
As the couple’s story is unfolded, it becomes clear that for these two, it’s more than cliché.
Consider the facts: both Bonsigniore and Boule are New York natives; Bonsigniore was born in Brooklyn, and Boule in West Point. Both ended up moving to Florida, albeit nearly 20 years apart. Bonsigniore landed in Orlando, while Boule found herself in Cape Canaveral working for NASA’s space program.
“One of my roommates at the time was dating a friend of Diane’s,” explains Bonsigniore. “So these two groups of friends started hanging out, and we ended up meeting 14 years before we actually ended up together.”
For more than a decade, Boule and Bonsigniore spent time in each other’s company, building a friendship. But things eventually took a romantic turn.
“I was getting ready to move to the west coast of Florida, and a mutual friend of ours invited us both over for drinks to celebrate my last night there. It was the first time that Diane and I were single at the same time in the 14 years that we knew each other,” says Bonsigniore.“I was just looking to get lucky for the night.”
Their relationship officially took root July 2of 2006, and almost immediately the couple shook things up and relocated to Tampa Bay.
“My grandparents were to a point where they were getting older, and couldn’t really take care of themselves so we were looking for a continuing care facility for them,” says Bonsigniore.“I was already in that process when Diane and I started seeing each other, and she was coming over this way to visit me on the weekends, and about four months into the relationship she said ‘I can’t do this long distance thing with you anymore,’ and I said, ‘I understand.’”
That’s when Boule announced she was quitting her job and moving across the state with Bonsigniore, who admits she was surprised the woman she loved was quitting her 20-year career with NASA.
“She said, ‘I’m a big girl, I can handle it,’ and she made the leap of faith and came over here,” Bonsigniore recalls
Together they opened a business and began a life in St. Petersburg, and after more than 20 years of friendship and nearly a decade in love, they decided to tie the knot.
“We were legally married in New York in December; we kind of eloped,” says Bonsigniore.“But we always knew we were going to have the actual ceremony in July here so our friends and family could be there and celebrate with us.”
Little did they know the planets were once again about to line up to give that date added importance.
The couple just learned about the argument against the state’s gay marriage ban just a month ago. The news was a pleasant surprise.
“We’ve been planning the wedding for almost a year now, and when we found out about it, we were both so excited, we were over the moon,” Bonsigniore says.“We didn’t realize it was going to be pushed through as quickly as it was in Florida, we thought it was going to be two or three years before this came about here.”
Bonsigniore is pretty optimistic about the outcome of the hearings, especially considering the conservative nature of the Sunshine State.
“I think it really is a 50/50 situation,” she says.“But there are so many states that are passing it through so quickly, I believe 20 in a row now, that I can’t see them denying it here, I can’t see it happening.”
The couple admits that the circumstances of the day are constantly at the forefront of their minds, but they take it in stride.
“It is weighing on us, we’ve talked about it, and it would certainly make it an even better experience if there is a ruling and same-sex marriage is made legal,” says Bonsigniore.
In the end, Bonsigniore and Boule are focusing on their celebration, and letting the chips fall where they may regarding the court hearings.
“We’re getting married on SunsetBeach in Treasure Island, and we’re having over 100 people at the wedding,” Bonsigniore says. “This is a full-blown ordeal with the reception, the band, the sit-down dinner. It’s more meaningful when you get to share it with the people you love.”
And maybe, just maybe, the planets will line up once again for Bonsigniore and Boule.
“Who knows,” Bonsignioresays.“We could be the first couple to have a wedding on the day the decision is made. That’s pretty cool.”
Counties could issue licenses immediately
If Florida’s ban on marriage equality is ruled unconstitutional, there’s a chance some counties would start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples immediately.
“Clerks in the state of Florida are ministerial. In other words, we don’t make decisions. We only follow the statutory laws or rules of the court,” explains Richard Shore, Manatee County Clerk of Court. “I’m perfectly willing to and have no objection to it, but I would have to wait to see what the forms are like. Now if we get a ruling from the Supreme Court saying to do it immediately, I’d do it immediately.”
Nicky Bradley with the Polk County Clerk’s office said that county simply follows the law.
“We would follow the Florida statute and law, so whatever is enacted in statute we will follow,” said Bradley.
Pinellas County, however, would wait for more information before moving forward with those licenses.
“We would want to wait for legal clarification,” explains Ken Burke, clerk of Pinellas County courts.
Burke said that cases like this are often looked at for direction, and the problem with that is that the case might be limited to just the individuals involved under certain circumstances.
Orange County Clerk of Court Eddie Fernandez offered a similar perspective.
“We would follow the law,” Fernandez says. “If [the ruling] is ambiguous then we would seek council on it.”
Watermark attempted to reach the clerk’s offices of Hillsborough, Sarasota, Pasco and Volusia counties, but emails and messages seeking comment were not returned.
Seminole County Clerk Maryanne Morse responded testily to Watermark’s question of whether or not her office would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“I follow the law, whatever the law is we will follow it,” Morse said. She then requested that Watermark not call again and abruptly hung up.
In the days leading up to the July 2 hearing, conservative groups gathered on the steps of the Miami-Dade County Courthouse to speak about the lawsuit filed by the Equality Florida Institute. They argued that the ban is a matter of democracy and not their disapproval of homosexuality.
Christian Family Coalition’s Anthony Verdugo verbally attacked Miami-Dade Clerk of Court Harvey Ruvin on June 30.
“Mr. Ruvin, and this is just a question, does that mean that you will sell fake homosexual marriage licenses? Don’t you care about creating chaos and confusion among the public, Mr. Ruvin?” Verdugo asked.
Ruvin responded to the conservative groups’ protest by saying, “In all cases I’m to comply with the court order. It’s inappropriate to talk about a pending case.”
Samantha Rosenthal, Jamie Hyman, Cristal Hayes and Steve Blanchard contributed to this article.