A judge in the Florida Keys has overturned the state's gay marriage ban, in a ruling that could clear the way for same-sex couples in Monroe County to get married.
The ruling, which applied only to Monroe County, came in a lawsuit filed in April by a same-sex Key West couple after they were denied a marriage license, on the basis of Florida's constitutional requirement that applicants must be a man and a woman.
Circuit Judge Luis M. Garcia ruled Thursday that same-sex couples can be issued marriage licenses, although under Florida law there are some restrictions and limitations applicable to opposite sex.
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While Garcia's ruling would allow same-sex couples to get married as early as Tuesday, the law will remain the same pending an appeal from the Attorney General's office.
The couple who made it happen, Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, celebrated the decision Thursday night.
"I actually dropped my phone when I got the call," Jones said. "I was so excited, so proud and happy, so glad that we made it this far so far."
Gay marriage proponents have won more than 20 legal decisions around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, although those rulings remain in various stages of appeal. Many legal experts say the Supreme Court may ultimately have to decide the question for all states.
Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.
During a recent hearing on a related Florida case in Miami-Dade County, attorneys for gay couples noted that, after a long legal fight, the state finally allowed them to adopt children but refused to recognize them as married.
"That inequality stigmatizes the couples and their children as second-class citizens," attorney Sylvia Walbolt said. "Same-sex marriages are completely beneficial. They are entitled to the full protection of the Constitution."
Supporters of the gay marriage ban focused mainly on the 2008 referendum vote rather than whether same-sex marriages were harmful or beneficial. Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalition, said it was wrong for a single judge to overrule the will of a majority vote.
"The people of the state have the right to decide," Verdugo said.
Along with the similar lawsuit pending in Miami-Dade, a separate lawsuit is pending in a federal court in Tallahassee seeking to force Florida to allow gay marriage and recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Florida has long been a battleground over gay rights. In the 1970s, singer and orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant led a successful campaign to overturn a Dade County ordinance that banned discrimination against gays. The county commission reinstated the ban two decades later.
Florida in 1977 became the only state that prohibited all gay people from adopting children. A state court judge threw out the law in 2008, finding "no rational basis" for the ban and approving the adoption of two young brothers by Martin Gill and his male partner. The state decided two years later not to appeal that ruling, making gay adoption legal.
The amendment Garcia overturned Thursday was passed by a 62-38 margin in 2008 and banned both same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships.