Impact ruling limited in Florida

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TALLAHASSEE - Landmark Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage Wednesday won’t overturn Florida’s constitutional ban on such unions.

But the court’s decisions — negating the federal Defense of Marriage Act and upholding lower court rulings invalidating California’s constitutional ban — open the possibility of future legal challenges to Florida’s prohibition against same-sex marriages. Those decisions also signal growing momentum for change, even in states with conservative leaders like Florida.

“It’s an incredibly exciting day,” said Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, who was one of several openly gay lawmakers elected in 2012. Saunders said the federal court rulings represent “a sea change in the way that the country is thinking about gay and lesbian families and the contributions that they make every day.”

But Saunders and other supporters of same-sex marriages said the future in Florida — one of 37 states that bans gay marriages — is less clear.

“In Florida, it’s a much a more complicated story now,” Saunders said.

“I think the cards are stacked in favor of gay and lesbian families. But the reality in Florida is that there is a constitutional amendment that bans marriage for gay and lesbian families.”

There is also a “defense of marriage” law within state statutes.

Same-sex couples — even if they are married in states where the unions are legal — will “have to navigate the waters that are still very murky,” Saunders said.

Florida’s top leaders say the ruling is clear in one regard: It does nothing to change a constitutional ban that was approved by 62 percent of Florida voters in 2008.

Gov. Rick Scott said he would defend Florida’s ban against same-sex marriages if it is challenged under the new rulings.

“It impacted federal law, not state law,” said Scott, who is a lawyer. “In 2008 Florida voters amended our constitution and said we are a traditional-marriage state, marriage is between a man and woman. As governor of the state, I will uphold the existing law of the land.”

Asked if he was open to changing his position, Scott added: “I’ve been married since I was 19. I believe in traditional marriage.”

Attorney General Pam Bondi offered a similar opinion.

“It has no effect on Florida,” Bondi said. “This is a federal law.”

“I believe in traditional marriage,” Bondi added, when asked about her personal beliefs. “I am sympathetic to same-sex couples in the event of death or catastrophe who cannot receive benefits.”

Even supporters of same-sex marriages said that Wednesday’s rulings were unlikely to offer any immediate relief to Floridians looking for local change.

They are “a major step forward for the country, but for Floridians they fall far short of justice and are more than anything a call to action,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, which advocates for gay and lesbian rights.

She noted that while Floridians can go to other states — representing roughly one-third of the nation’s population — and have a valid same-sex marriage, they “return to Florida legal strangers in our home state.”

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court decisions come as attitudes are changing, even among Floridians, on the subject of same-sex marriage.

Five years ago, more than six of every 10 voters backed the constitutional ban against same-sex marriages. But a Quinnipiac University poll late last year showed only 45 percent of Florida voters opposed such unions. Other polls have shown a majority of voters supporting same-sex marriage.

The evolving attitudes have led to changing positions among some Florida leaders.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, reversed his position and endorsed same-sex marriages earlier this year. On Wednesday, Nelson said he supported the court decision, saying it held that the U.S. Constitution “prohibits discrimination of lawfully wedded same-sex couples.”

Yet Nelson’s Republican counterpart, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, was firm in his opposition. He said the nation’s highest court made “a serious mistake.”

“The court should not have second-guessed the will of the American people acting through their elected representatives without firm constitutional justifications,” Rubio said. “The sweeping language of today’s majority opinion is more troubling than the ruling itself, as it points to further interference by the court in the years to come.”

Another supporter of the 2008 amendment who has changed his mind is former Gov. Charlie Crist, who has also changed political parties to become a Democrat and may challenge Scott next year.

In May, Crist turned to Facebook to praise several states that had backed same-sex provisions. “I most certainly support marriage equality in Florida and look forward to the day it happens here,” Crist wrote.

Crist’s position will provide one of the many contrasts with Scott if the two square off in a run for governor.

Meanwhile, even staunch opponents of same-sex marriages acknowledge movement in public opinion.

State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, a former chairman of the Christian Coalition in Florida, called Wednesday’s decisions “disappointing” if it represented a shift away from states setting their own policies on marriage.

But just as the supporters of same-sex marriage want to use the ruling to press their cause in Florida, Baxley said supporters of the existing law will have a new reason to defend their position.

“The movement to change the definition of family has been very assertive and very aggressive,” Baxley said. “It has had some impact on public opinion. I still think that in Florida you would find support for the traditional concept of marriage, mainly because once that doors opens, you don’t know what all it is opening to.

“I look for a strong effort to try to keep our authority and our state policy,” Baxley added. “And I think that public opinion will still support a traditional marriage and understand it as a foundational concept for our society.”

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Baxley is fairly representative of the conservative legislative leadership, which has shown little interest in gay rights legislation.

As a sign of the rough political terrain facing same-sex marriage supporters in Tallahassee, the most significant achievement in the 2013 session was a Senate committee narrowly endorsing a state domestic partnership registry that could extend some legal protections to same-sex couples.

But the bill stalled and was never heard in the House.

Representative Saunders had a bill with six Republican co-sponsors that would have prohibited discrimination against gay Floridians in their jobs and housing. But it was never heard by any committee.

Saunders said the Supreme Court action heightens the divide between Florida and the states that offer more rights to gay and lesbian citizens.

“Even while opinion polls tell us that people believe gay Floridians should be treated like everyone else, the Florida Legislature has done nothing to create even the most basic protections,” he said.

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