Florida GOP Rallies Around Marriage Equality as LGBT Community Mobilizes

June 27, 2013
Flagler Live

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Floridians are celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic rulings striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and paving the way to restore gay marriage in California — but said the victories are bittersweet.

By a 5-4 majority, the high court on Wednesday overturned DOMA, which has denied federal benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married in states that approve their unions. Florida is not one of them.

“The rulings out of the Supreme Court mean so much for so many people, but so much less for the people in Florida,” said Rep. Joe Saunders, an Orlando Democrat and one of the first two openly gay lawmakers in the state.

That’s because in 2008, Floridians passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions, with the measure receiving nearly 62 percent of the vote. There’s also a state version of DOMA on the books, passed in 1997.

“In Florida, I think there’s been a very clear statement with the marriage amendment, where we stand,” said House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican and supporter of the ban.

Other Florida Republican leaders weighed in Wednesday, reiterating their support for the traditional view of marriage as between one man and one woman.

“The voters in 2008 decided that we’re going to be a traditional marriage state,” said Gov. Rick Scott, noting that he’s been married since he was 19. “That’s what the voters decided, and it’s my job as governor to uphold the law of the land.”

“I respect the rights of states to allow same-sex marriages, even though I disagree with them,” said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in a statement. “But I also expect that the decisions made by states like Florida to define marriage as between one man and one woman will also be respected.”

But Florida LGBT activists, fired up by the rulings, said they have no intention of leaving matters as they stand.

Civil rights attorney Mary Meeks of Orlando said the high court’s ruling will immediately grant more than 1,100 federal rights and benefits to same-sex couples who were married in states that have legalized same-sex unions. Nine states and the District of Columbia have such laws on the books now, while three more states have approved same-sex marriage to take effect Aug. 1.

“The money question that I believe is unanswered by this court’s decision is whether people like my wife and I, who got married in states like that but who live in states like Florida that prohibit same-sex marriage, whether or not we will have access to those rights and benefits,” Meeks said.

“And I think that’s a legal question that will only be answered by further legal action.”

Advocates are also considering two other avenues for change: another constitutional amendment that would overturn the 2008 ban, or legislation at the state level.

Hardly anyone thinks the latter is likely, even Saunders. “For this year, it feels like a heavy lift,” he acknowledged. During the 2013 session, Saunders filed a bill (HB 653) that would have banned workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, but it died without a hearing.

Also this year, a bill that would have allowed domestic partnerships for unmarried couples (SB 196) made Florida history by passing one committee — the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood and the bill’s sponsor. But that was as far as it got.

“The make-up of the Legislature just has no tolerance for this kind of radical legislation that redefines marriage,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council and a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage. “I think that’s a dead end for them.”

That would appear to leave a ballot measure as a likely alternative, and last week the gay-rights group Equality Florida announced its new “Get Engaged” campaign to do that in 2014.

University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said a sharp generational divide favors the passage of same-sex marriage as the electorate ages.

“But it’s still a divided state on the issue,” she said, “and if it were put on the ballot, much would depend on the turnout — the demographic make-up of the voters who actually turn out to vote.”

That’s why, MacManus added, backers of same-sex marriage would be well-advised to mount their campaign in 2016, because a higher percentage of young voters go to the polls in a presidential election. Older voters tend to dominate in a midterm election, she said.

The changing demographics have prompted more politicians who opposed same-sex marriage — including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and former Gov. Charlie Crist — to change their views on the issue.

Baxley acknowledged the demographic shifts, but he wasn’t ready to declare his traditional view of marriage obsolete.

“Some of those young folks’ opinions are going to shift as they mature,” he said.

–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

In the News