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Legal challenge could overturn gay-marriage ban in Florida

Six couples file suit in Miami saying ban fosters discrimination and stigma against same-sex couples

Photo: Courtesy of Equality Florida, License: N/A

Courtesy of Equality Florida

Fighting the good fight: (left to right) Stratton Pollitzer, Nadine Smith, Summer Greene, Pamela Faerber, Shannon Minter

Photo: Photo by Carlos Amoedo, License: N/A

Photo by Carlos Amoedo

Mary Meeks

On Tuesday, Jan. 21, Equality Florida and the National Center for Lesbian Rights announced from a Miami Beach press conference that they would, as had previously been hinted, team up to challenge Florida’s gay marriage ban in Florida courts. Though the move falls in line with recent historic efforts in Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia and Pennsylvania (among many others), Florida’s first step toward righting the perceived wrongs of 2008’s Amendment 2 is impressive in its own right.

Six same-sex couples – three male, three female – who have been in committed relationships for as long as 25 years are suing the Miami-Dade County Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin following his office’s refusal to issue them marriage licenses on Jan. 17. Five of the six couples have children together, and one of those couples – Melanie Leon Alenier and Vanessa Alenier – helped overturn Florida’s ban on gay adoptions when they won a court case in 2010 allowing them to legally adopt a 21-month-old child who had lived with them since he was 9 days old.

“We spend our life together as if we’re married. The only difference is that we’re not married. Florida is our home, and more than anything, we want to get married in Florida,” the Aleniers said following the Tuesday press conference.

All but one of the couples involved in the case attended the press conference. The plaintiffs are Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello, who have been together for 14 years; Todd and Jeff Delmay, in a relationship for 11 years; Summer Greene and Pamela Faerber, together 25 years (“In the 1970s, Anita Bryant told us that we were not acceptable at a time when acceptance and fitting in meant everything to a teenager. Today, we’re here before you seeking the freedom to marry,” Greene said at the press conference); Dr. Juan Carlos Rodriguez and David Price, together 18 years and raising twins; and Don Price Johnston and Jorge Isaias Diaz, together for one year.

“Marriage matters,” Diaz said. “It matters to us, because sometimes all you have to hold onto is each other.”

Also named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit is the Equality Florida Institute – the 501(c)3 nonprofit educational arm of Equality Florida – which is suing on behalf of its statewide membership.

“Equality Florida Institute members include many same-sex couples who long for the freedom to marry and would marry in Florida, if Florida law permitted them to do so,” the organization said in a statement.

The suit, filed Jan. 21 in a Miami circuit court, will be adjudicated by Judge Sarah Zabel, who specializes in family law (and who is also the wife of former Miami Beach mayor Myron Rosner). The case uses similar language to that in the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The same strategy led to positive court rulings in Utah in 2013 and Oklahoma in early January. In Florida, a broad legal coalition including law firm Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, attorney Elizabeth F. Schwartz, attorney Mary B. Meeks and National Center for Lesbian Rights legal director Shannon Minter will directly challenge state law in the places where it bans same-sex marriage, both in statute and in the constitution: Article 1, Section 27 of the Florida Constitution, and Section 741.04 and 741.212 of the Florida Statutes. (Disclosure: Meeks represented this reporter in a probate case last year.)

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