Florida's Antiquated Marriage Procedures Don't Favor Same-Sex Couples

Although Florida seems to be on the edge of a truly historic leap into the 21st Century with marriage equality, the football isn't quite in the end zone. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision not to tackle whether or not to keep the state's same sex marriage ban in place past a January deadline indicates . . . possibly . . . probably? . . . that gay couple will be able to get hitched in the very near future.

But this is where a whole new set of complications come into play. Because the actual nuts and bolts of getting a marriage license in Florida aren't as simple as getting a nice dress and going down to the courthouse.

For a moment let's just set aside the whole issue about whether or not county clerks of court will go ahead and issue the licenses come January 5th (more on that below).

But the truth is that you can't just stroll down to the courthouse and walk out with a marriage license. Thanks to some hitches in the Florida statute, Sunshine State couples looking to tie the knot have to either wait out a three-day period before they can scoop up their license. Or, they can take a one-day premaritial course, thereby waiving the waiting period.

The big irony here is that most of the places where you can find the premarital course are churches and other religious institutions -- or places and people that don't have a good track record of being kosher with same-sex marriage to begin with. Included in the list of Broward area options? None other than the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a Fort Lauderdale mega-church that under now-deceased founder Rev. James Kennedy became a megaphone against the so-called "militant homosexual agenda."

The second helping of irony is that the official word on the subject in Florida for confused couples is the Family Law Handbook, a document that was prepared by the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar.

In 1999.

Not only is the Clinton-era document festooned with old school clip art style graphics and a school marmish tone (check it out below), it's probably due for an update because it's completely oriented to hetros:

"It may surprise you to learn that the State of Florida has an interest in your marriage. Not in the number of bridesmaids, or the flavor of the cake, or even the color of the flowers -- but in whether the marriage is long lasting and happy."

Other choice quotes from the text:

"Getting married is more than just pledging to live together until death (or divorce). It is more than agreeing to live away from your parents with another person. It is more than legal permission to have consensual sexual relations with your partner."

And here's this one: "When two people marry they form both a social and an economic partnership.That partnership does not need to be renewed every year, as you would a car registration."

Car registration? Anyway, the real meat of text is about divorce and child support after a separation -- not exactly the most heart-warming read for brides and grooms-to-be, but especially tone deaf when we're talking about gay couples.

Why? The state of Florida has just recently issue it's first gay divorce in Broward County -- a court decision that still could be challenged by Attorney General Pam Bondi's office. Child support is also up in the air. Recent studies have found a steady decline in the number of gay couple raising children (although the numbers of couple adopting have steadily risen).

The point here is that the state's definition of important topics for newly weds to discuss has little to do with gay life, at least as it's currently written. Regardless, with January 5th looming, gay couple are making arrangements anyway.

According to Dr. Judi Cinéas, a Palm Beach County licensed clinical social worker who teaches the premarital course (and one of the few non-religious options for the course in South Florida), she's already had calls from same-sex couples interested in scheduling sessions before January 5th.

"It should not really effect how people go though the course," Cineas says. "The course gets people thinking about, 'This is who I am, this is who you are. How do we get onto the same page about the different things.' Because all those little things make a big difference in a marriage."

Now, still shadowing the whole issue of gay marriage in South Florida is whether clerks of court across the state will actually issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Under the current language of the ban, state employees who issue the licenses could be slapped with a first degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

As such, in the last few weeks, Greenberg Traurig, the law firm representing the Florida Association of Court Clerks, advised clerks that the current court rulings may mean that only Washington County is free to issue marriage licenses. The firm has advised the rest of the state to continue to comply with the ban -- despite the fact that a number of State Attorneys (including Palm Beach County's Dave Aronberg) have said they will not prosecute clerks who issue licenses.

"Florida law continues to prohibit a clerk from issuing a marriage license to a same-gender couple and provides criminal sanctions for doing so," the firm said this week in a statement to the Miami Herald. "Our legal advice cannot be affected by assurances that certain law enforcement authorities might not take action to prosecute violators of the criminal statute."

It's a read of the law that the Florida American Civil Liberties Union opposes. "We certainly do believe that when a federal judge declares a law unconstitutional, all public officials, including those who are not named in the lawsuit, should stop enforcing it," the ACLU's Baylor Johnson tells New Times.

Family Law Handbook

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson