The long road to marriage equality has been bumpy, up to the bitter end

By : Jamie Hyman, Steve Blanchard and Samantha Rosenthal
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Gail Foreman and Pat Cummins have waited nearly a quarter-century for 2015. This is the year the Sarasota couple may actually get legally married in their home state. But their plans for a Jan. 6 wedding on Sarasota County’s courthouse steps skidded to a halt over the holidays when confusion arose over which counties could and couldn’t issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“We have our ducks in a row and we’re ready,” Foreman says. “We did our online premarital test already to avoid the three-day waiting period for a license.”

That test, she admits, was comical and geared toward young, heterosexual couples just starting on their journey. Not for a lesbian couple celebrating 24 years together.

“It instructed us on how to resolve conflicts, how to budget and what to do with religious differences,” Forman laughs. “We got a chuckle of the whole thing. It’s so antiquated.”

But even with some slight comic relief, the couple has difficulty hiding their frustration. After more than two decades together, the two have no doubt that they want to be married. The reason they haven’t traveled to one of 35 states that do recognize marriage equality is simple.

“We had a civil union in Key West a few years ago, but we said we’re not leaving Florida to get married legally now that we’re here and part of the community,” Foreman said. “It just isn’t worth it. We wanted to wait and do it here. We absolutely knew we were going to do this once it was legal.”

Foreman, a school teacher, said marriage will afford her the chance to protect Cummins with her pensions and benefits. There are also benefits Foreman could receive through Cummins’ employer, FedEx.

The two women moved to Florida eight years ago and planned to get married on the Sarasota County Courthouse steps on Jan. 6. Now, like every other same-sex couple outside of Washington and Osceola counties—the only two counties that at press time were prepared to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples—Foreman and Cummings have put their wedding plans on hiatus.

“I was frustrated and angry,” Foreman says, adding that her soon-to-be-spouse felt the same way. “I couldn’t believe that all of the legal minds involved in this didn’t catch the wording before it got to the point of announcing that everyone can get married.”

The couple purchased plane tickets for friends to come celebrate their nuptials—but now those friends are just coming to enjoy some time away from cold weather.

“But who knows, maybe we’ll have time to sneak a wedding in there,” Foreman says. “Because the minute it’s clarified and it’s legal, we’re getting married.”

Wedding confusion
What eventually turned into confusion began as joy in August for those who support marriage equality in Florida. That’s when Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. He placed a stay on his decision so the state could appeal, which it did, but he refused to extend it past its original Jan. 5 deadline. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to step in and grant an extension.

That same month, Florida’s county clerks of court received conflicting information as to what is legal and proper come Jan. 6. As of press time, most clerks say they won’t issue licenses after the Florida Clerks and Comptrollers Association has advised twice that clerks outside of Washington County—where Hinkle made his ruling—can face criminal prosecution if they issue licenses Jan. 6.

Equality Florida, who successfully sued the state last year for marriage recognition in South Florida, responded to the organization’s advice, saying that it is incorrect. That memo says that clerks across Florida have a legal obligation to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples or risk expensive litigation, including liability for damages and attorney fees.

“Clerks can stand in the doorway and try to block equality or they can welcome gay couples who have waited for decades for this moment,” Nadine Smith says in a prepared statement. “We expect every Clerk to uphold their oath and protect the constitutional rights of gay couples seeking marriage licenses. No legal firm’s memo overrides their clear legal obligation.”

According to the Associated Press at press time Dec. 30, only two Florida counties plan to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on Jan. 6—Washington and Osceola counties.

Tampa Bay and other Central Florida counties are awaiting more instruction.

“At this time, there’s an uncertainty,” said one spokesperson for the Clerk of the Court for Pinellas County. “We haven’t been given a yes or no.”

The similar stance was shared in neighboring Hillsborough County.

“Originally we were told Jan. 6 [was the date to issue same-sex couples marriage licenses], but now we are waiting on a legal opinion to come back,” a spokesperson from the Hillsborough Clerk of Court told Watermark.

The threat of legal action directed at those clerks who do issue licenses—ranging from fines to time in jail—has kept even those who support marriage equality from saying if they will issue licenses come Jan. 6.

Hinkle has filed an order so he can clarify the ruling before Jan. 5.

Moving forward with marriage
Even with clarification out of reach, the City of Orlando will move forward with plans to celebrate marriage equality with a mass wedding on Jan. 6.

On Dec. 22, MBA Orlando announced a ceremony for same-sex couples at City Hall with Mayor Buddy Dyer presiding over the ceremony.

“MBA Orlando is delighted to be partnering with the City of Orlando,” says Andrea Hayes, director of diversity and inclusion for MBA Orlando. “We have a longstanding, strong relationship with the City of Orlando, and actually we’ve been in conversation for the past year and a half to two years regarding marriage equality… Mayor Dyer made it well-known to us that his intentions, for the past couple of years, that he has wanted to preside over the first—if not one of the first—same-sex marriage in Central Florida. As we’ve seen the movement progress the past couple months, our conversation started back up again to discuss the logistics and ceremony.”

The ceremony is planned for 9 a.m. in the Rotunda at City Hall with an anticipated 10 to 30 couples participating in the ceremony. Vendors will be present to make sure that the day is just as special, and photographers will be on-hand to capture this special moment.

Commissioner Patty Sheehan and staff from the City of Orlando will be at the event. MBA Orlando reached out to Orange County but have yet to confirm a representative in attendance.

“MBA Orlando is also working closely with Equality Florida, Human Rights Campaign and The Center to ensure this is a collaborative event for the LGBT community and that there are other events happening throughout the day,” Hayes says.

The GLBT Community Center of Central Florida will also host a mass wedding the same day.

“The Center, with its mission to bring the community together, on Jan. 6 will be one of the first in Central Florida to hold a mass wedding ceremony here at The Center,” says The Center’s Executive Director Terry DeCarlo. “We already have about 25 couples signed up to get married on that day.”

DeCarlo was confident in December that clerks across the state would recognize full marriage equality by issuing same-sex couples licenses on Jan. 6.

The Washington option
Since the case Judge Hinkle ruled on was filed in Washington County, some are concerned that his ruling declaring the state’s ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional only impact the small, panhandle county just north of Panama City. Some couples considered traveling to Washington County to get their licenses and then return to their home counties to wed. Others may travel to the county and get married.

Foreman and Cummins of Sarasota considered both options, but were unsure if the seven-hour drive would have been worth it.

“We’re afraid that we’d get to Washington County and learn that we had to be residents there to get a license,” Foreman explains. “It’s all so convoluted and confusing right now. We’re just waiting for more clarity before we do anything.”

Washington County, she says, is missing out on an amazing economic opportunity if it doesn’t grant licenses to other same-sex couples, she says.

“Think of the tourism,” she says. “Not only the licensing fees, but the hotel stays, dining establishments and attractions. I read that Washington County is the poorest county in the state. This is an economic opportunity for them up there. They should snatch it up.”

According to USA Today, Washington County ranks 59th out of 67 Florida counties when it comes to average household income.

25-plus amicus briefs urge ban’s end
According to Equality Florida, more than 25 unique amicus briefs have been submitted to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit encouraging the state move forward with marriage equality. Groups include law enforcement officials—including Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor—faith leaders and city and county municipalities from across the Sunshine State.

The briefs ask the court to end the ban once and for all, and business community leaders stress the importance of marriage equality to the state’s economy.

“State laws and constitutions denying marriage to gay and lesbian citizens are bad for our businesses,” one brief representing the business community reads. “Amici are forced to bear unnecessary costs, complexity, and risk in managing our companies, and we are hampered in our efforts to recruit and retain the most talented workforce possible—all of which places us at a competitive disadvantage. Our success depends upon the welfare and morale of all employees, without distinction.”

Equality Florida hailed the briefs and focused on the diversity of the support coming from all corners of the state.

“The breadth and depth of these amici briefs demonstrate the groundswell of support for the freedom to marry,” says Smith. “A Federal district court in Florida has now joined the 60 other state and federal courts—including four federal appellate courts—who over the past year have affirmed the freedom to marry and held the denial of marriage to be unconstitutional. We believe when the 11th Circuit justices consider this case and make note of the diversity of support, they, too, will affirm the right of everyone to marry the person they love.”

Florida is now just one of 15 states that do not recognize marriage equality.

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