It was no April Fool’s: on April 1, Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones went to the clerk of court in Monroe County and asked for a marriage license. Huntsman and Jones are both bartenders and live in Key West. They’d been in a relationship for 11 years. They wanted that relationship recognized and legitimized under Florida law, like that of any other married couple.
The clerk of court turned them down. Florida law forbids same-sex marriages. And in 2008, Florida voters approved an amendment to the Constitution called the Florida Marriage Protection Act (sic.) emphasizing the prohibition.
Huntsman and Jones sued the next day in Monroe County Circuit Court, citing the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses. The case was assigned to Judge Luis Garcia, a Jeb Bush appointee.
On Thursday (July 17), Garcia declared Florida’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. The 14th Amendment, he ruled, overrides Florida law. The ruling applies only in Monroe County. But its impact is reverberating across the state and takes its place alongside similar and systematic rulings across the nation that have declared same-sex marriage bans un constitutional in almost half the states: On July 1, Kentucky became the 19th state to either legalize gay marriage or overturn a ban.
The due process clause, Garcia ruled, “guarantees all citizens have certain ‘fundamental rights’ and that citizens have a right to ‘liberty’ from governmental intrusion and this right is guaranteed and to be protected by the United States Constitution.” Neither side, the judge said, denied that marriage is a foundation of the family and of society. Neither side disputes that the right to marry is fundamental. “The parting-of-the-ways occurs,” the judge wrote, “on whether the right to marry belongs to the individual’s choice of spouse or whether the state has the authority to dictate one’s choice in spouse to the opposite sex.”
The state does not have that right, the judge ruled. The clerk of court in Monroe must start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples by next Tuesday (July 22).
Pam Bondi, Florida’s attorney general, immediately appealed the decision to the Third District Court of Appeal, continuing a legal process that started in Monroe and may not end until the Florida Supreme Court rules on the matter, if not the U.S. Supreme Court. Bondi, in a statement, said that “finality on this constitutional issue must come from the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Marriage equality advocates are not waiting to celebrate. “This is a monumental step forward for Florida,” Nadine Smith, who heads Equality Florida, said in a statement. “Today’s historic ruling affirms what the majority of Florida residents already know to be true: All couples and their families deserve to be treated equally by their government.”
Equality Florida is organizing celebrations in a dozen cities tonight. The two Key West men’s lawsuit was modeled after a lawsuit Equality Florida filed on behalf of six gay couples in Miami-Dade County, and that is still awaiting a judge’s decision.
Huntsman and Jones argued 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 judge went further, arguing that a 1975 U.S. Supreme Court decision leaving the definition of marriage to the states “is no longer binding on lower courts,” while the matter of same-sex marriage “has now become a federal question.” And he relied on the high court’s precedents to support the argument that the right to marry does not depend on government, but on individual desire.
“The right these plaintiffs seek is not a new right, but is a right that these individuals have always been guaranteed by the United States Constitution,” the judge wrote. “Societal norms and traditions have kept same-sex couples from marrying, like it kept women from voting until 1920 and forbid (sic.) interracial marriage until 1967.”
Garcia went further: The Supreme Court, he wrote, explained in a previous decision “that every generation defines its own freedom and that our present laws may be judged by future generations as oppressive and obviously unconstitutional. The same way we now look at laws that forbade interracial marriage, or excluded homosexuals from entering the country, or kept women from voting, or kept black children from going to school with white children or that the U.S. imprisoned Japanese-Americans, on U.S. soil, in camps during WWII.” (The odd syntax is the judge’s own.) Fundamental rights, the judge wrote, citing another precedent, “may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no election.”