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Cover 07/24/2013

Florida’s LGBT advocates explore options for overturning state’s marriage ban

In the wake of the DOMA decision, LGBT Floridians navigate rocky road to equality

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The splintering of gay rights groups echoes a similar schism in 2008 that helped Amendment 2 pass in the first place. Fairness for All Families, a political arm of gay rights group Equality Florida, came up against a better-funded Florida Red and Blue, an independent group with deep Democratic pockets, in its efforts to stop Amendment 2 in 2008. Rather than join forces with Fairness for All Families, the latter organization decided not to include gay couples in its campaigning against the measure because it was afraid to court controversy. In the end, even Florida Red and Blue’s extensive spending (nearly $4 million) couldn’t spare the state from a marriage ban, something many at the time suggested was a direct result of the organizations not being able to work together.

“Personally, I doubt our ability to pull it together by 2014,” Saunders says of the current petition drive suggested by Equal Marriage Florida. “I think we should be in a place where we’re looking at the entire landscape, where we’re looking at every strategy. If there’s a legal strategy to tackle Amendment 2, we should pursue that strategy, if it’s a legitimate one. If there’s a legislative strategy, if all of the sudden we went up there and realized maybe the Senate President and Speaker [Will] Weatherford wanted to put it on the ballot to get it out of their conversation and let the people decide, that’s a legitimate strategy.”

“I think in four years we’ll have even more momentum,” he says.

The courts

The prevailing wisdom is that the shortest distance between here and equality – at least in Florida – will be through litigation in a federal court. Orlando civil rights attorney Mary Meeks has been part of a national working group strategizing the best point of entry to propel marriage equality in Florida. She stresses that even though the Windsor decision has significantly changed the playing field, any case filed against the state of Florida would still face one of the most conservative courts at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. That shouldn’t prevent advocates from trying, says Meeks, because the only way Florida can be directly ensured same-sex marriage rights – other than another state’s case going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and nullifying all the nation’s marriage bans – is for somebody in Florida to sue the state.

“I don’t see any negative from us taking a whack at it,” Meeks says. “We do want to be careful and pick the right lower court where we have the best chance of drawing a judge or a court that would be favorable. We want to be careful about who we choose to be our plaintiffs. These are the logistics we’re considering right now.”

Federal cases have been filed in Nevada, Hawaii, Michigan and Pennsylvania, among others, so the outcomes of those arguments could be useful in framing a Florida case, according to Meeks. And given the costs of bringing a case of this nature all the way up through the system, it would behoove Florida advocates to be cautious. Also, because the dust is still settling on just what federal rights will become available to same-sex Florida couples who were legally married elsewhere, some parameters about ideal plaintiffs are still in question.

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