Florida Becomes the 36th State to Recognize Same-Sex Marriage

On Monday, January 5, 2015, Miami Dade became the first county in the state of Florida to recognize same-sex marriage, start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and officiate same-sex marriages. The decision came from Miami Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel. Judge Zabel lifted a stay of her previous ruling from July of 2014 which found Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. The ban was a result of the 2008 Constitutional Amendment which defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

On January 6, 2015, a similar ruling was set to apply to the rest of the Sunshine State. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of multiple individuals challenging the 2008 Constitutional Amendment as unconstitutional. On August 21, 2014, the presiding U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle entered his initial ruling declaring the ban as unconstitutional. In his opinion, Judge Hinkle writes

[t]he 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.

One of the Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit was a Fort Myers native, Arlene Goldberg, who sued Florida to recognize her New York marriage. Mrs. Goldberg and her wife, Carol Goldwasser, were in a relationship for 47 years and had been married for 3 years at the time of Mrs. Goldwasser’s death. Because Florida did not recognize their New York marriage, Mrs. Goldberg was not allowed to collect her deceased wife’s Social Security benefits. Judge Hinkle ordered the Florida Surgeon General to issue a corrected death certificate for Mrs. Goldwasser, showing that at the time of her death she was married to Arlene Goldberg. He found “no good reason to further deny Ms. Goldberg the simple human dignity of being listed on her spouse’s death certificate.”

In order to allow time for appeal, Judge Hinkle issued a stay of his August ruling until January 6, 2015. However, confusion arose as to the application of the federal ruling prompting Judge Hinkle to clarify his previous order. In his clarification, Judge Hinkle ruled that all Florida clerks are bound by the United States Constitution not to enforce Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Florida is now the 36th state, plus the District of Columbia, to recognize same-sex marriage. Several clerks have welcomed the ruling with acceptance, even opening their offices at 12:01 on January 6, 2015 to issue marriage licenses and officiate courthouse weddings. Not the same sentiment followed throughout the state, however, as certain clerks have decided to end courthouse weddings altogether so as to avoid marrying couples of the same gender. The Lee County Clerk has issued the following statement in response:

I appreciate that U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle took the time to clarify his ruling and clear the muddy waters. The Lee County Clerk’s Office will be legally issuing marriage licenses to everyone including same-gender couples, recognizing marriage-equality, on January 6, 2015.”

If you are a Florida resident, there is a three-day waiting period between obtaining a license and having a ceremony. However, this requirement can be waived if the couple attends a premarital course approved by the county clerk. The waiting period does not apply to non-residents. For more information on how to obtain a marriage license in Lee County, please visit LeeClerk.Org.

Liridona Sinani is an Attorney with Martin Law Firm, P.L. who practices Family Law and Civil Litigation. She is admitted to practice law in the State of Florida and the Federal Court for the Middle District of Florida. She primarily practices in Lee County and Collier County Florida in Cape Coral, Fort Myers, and Naples.