According to Equality Florida, one of the state's leading LGBT rights organizations, same-sex marriages could begin in Florida as early as September 22, if by September 21 no one appeals last week's ruling in a federal case made by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle.
On August 21, Hinkle ruled that Florida's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Any appeal of his decision would need to be filed within 30 days.
Only three people -- two of them Rick Scott appointees -- have the authority to intervene and file an appeal. If they fail to act within 30 days, Hinkle's ruling will stand, making gay marriage legal throughout the state.
Though Hinkle placed a stay on his decision that could persist for months, Equality Florida does not believe this will be the case.
"If there is no appeal by midnight on Monday, Sept. 22nd, then Judge Hinkle's ruling that Florida's marriage ban is unConstitutional will stand and the ban will fall. We have every expectation that if there no appeal and the deadline passes, then Judge Hinkle would almost immediately lift the stay on this ruling," said Stratton Politzer, Deputy Director for Equality Florida.
Meanwhile, the Shaw case from Central Florida has been sent straight to the Florida Supreme Court, and the merged Pareto-Huntsman case in South Florida is still pending approval whether it will also be sent directly to the state's Supreme Court. Since it is uncertain whether the Florida Supreme Court will take up these cases (anytime soon), Hinkle's ruling at the federal level, if it is not appealed, would stand in expediently bringing marriage equality to Florida. If the federal case were to be appealed, it would be redirected to the Supreme Court of the United States. Though SCOTUS is the final arbiter of federal constitutional questions, it would be under no obligation to take up the case.
Last week, Judge Hinkle ruled that Florida's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional. He wrote:
"The institution of marriage survived when bans on interracial marriage were struck down, and the institution will survive when bans on same-sex marriage are struck down. Liberty, tolerance, and respect are not zero-sum concepts. Those who enter opposite-sex marriages are harmed not at all when others, including these plaintiffs, are given the liberty to choose their own life partners and are shown the respect that comes with formal marriage. Tolerating views with which one disagrees is a hallmark of civilized society.
... The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized the fundamental right to marry. The Court applied the right to interracial marriage in 1967 despite state laws that were widespread and of long standing. Just last year the Court struck down a federal statute that prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages lawfully entered in other jurisdictions. The Florida provisions that prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriages lawfully entered elsewhere, like the federal provision, are unconstitutional. So is the Florida ban on entering same-sex marriages."
Hinkle also dismissed State Attorney General Pam Bondi from the case, and now there remain only three people who have the authority to file an appeal: Craig J. Nichols, Florida's Secretary of Management Services ; John H. Armstrong, Florida's Surgeon General; and Harold Bazzel, Washington County Clerk of Court. Asgrimsley_v._scott_order_granting_preliminary_injunction.pdf" target="_blank"> this court ruling explains, they are the "proper defendants."
Equality Florida has now initiated a viral internet campaign, asking people to contact Governor Scott and demand he not influence Nichols, Armstrong or Bazzel to appealing Hinkle's marriage ruling. Charlie Crist has likewise called on Scott to let Hinkle's ruling stand. In a letter to Governor Scott, Crist wrote:
"Last Thursday Federal District Judge Robert Hinkle gave you the same chance to speak out for what is right when, in a ruling that would apply statewide, he struck down Florida's ban on same sex marriage. By declaring the marriage ban finished you could discourage any future appeals and end the nightmare that loving same sex couples all across our state endure every single day, ending court battles that could drag on for months or years.
Courts throughout Florida are endorsing the principle that government ought not deprive an entire class of citizens the right to marry simply because of whom they love. Florida deserves a governor who will stand up for all of the people of this state.
You have the power to end the suffering of people like Arlene Goldberg. Last March, Arlene lost her wife and partner of 47 years, Carol Goldwasser. At a moment of enormous and understandable grief, Arlene had to suffer the humiliation of not being listed as Carol's wife on the death certificate. Even worse, she lost her home because she was denied the social security benefits they had earned."
Pressure is on for Scott, who faces a tight race for reelection this November. Will he try to uphold the ban and appease his conservative base? Or will he take a no-interference approach, letting gay marriages proceed, thus signaling that he accepts a modicum of socially liberal policies, and softening his reputation?
Though spokespeople for the governor say Scott is respectful of the many views Floridians have on the state's ban, they say he believes in the "traditional marriage" that is consistent with the state's 2008 constitutional amendment, in which 62 percent of Floridians voted in favor of only legally recognizing heterosexual relationships. Governor Scott has since dodged questions on whether he supports same-sex couples right to marry.
"I think those who are allowed to appeal are probably going to do so. This is Governor Scott's election year, so by not doing anything he could upset his conservative constituents," said Mark Ebenhoch, media director for the South Florida couples who are currently challenging the state's ban. "I think it's wishful thinking that this ruling will go through without an appeal-- but it would be nice if it did. He's got to do something, or will find someone to do something for him. It's a political hot potato."
Right now all eyes are on Governor Scott. If neither of the Rick Scott appointees nor the small-town clerk of court appeals, then marriage equality will be brought to Florida next month.
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The South Florida couples, who have been challenging the state's ban for months, are anxiously waiting. The couples believe that this could be a time that the governor chooses not to get in the way of equality but instead to do what is right.
"It would be almost too good to be true, wouldn't? Here we are again on pins-and-needles hoping that maybe, just maybe, this time things will be different," said Todd Delmay, who is challenging the state's ban with his partner Jeff in the merged Pareto-Huntsman case. "That instead of continuing to waste money on appeals, and refusing us the dignity and respect that our families deserve, that perhaps the three individuals who can appeal will do what is best for the greater good this time. Rather than fighting against those who seek only to be treated equally, they could make a stand for what is right... We will win this. Maybe not on September 22nd, but soon. Of that I am quite certain."