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Florida Gay Marriage Lawsuit Mobilizes Supporters, Opponents

Equality Florida

With a suit filed this week, Florida became the latest battleground state in the national push to legalize gay marriage. The move has motivated a coalition of religious groups to plan a campaign aimed at swaying public opinion against same-sex unions as the case goes before a Miami judge.

Summer Greene remembers the moment last year she learned the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

“I was in a room of about 50 people when the Supreme Court hearing came out, and there was just like this buzz throughout the room. I was at a Realtor event. There were straight people, gay people,” she recalls. “It has just raised up on the radar screen, and it just seems to be the right time to participate.”

Greene and her partner of 25 years, Pam Faerber, are one of six Florida couples, along with advocacy group Equality Florida, trying to topple the state’s five-year-old constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

The two women met in a Fort Lauderdale community choir and have since raised a daughter and been active in the lives of their two grandchildren.  Faerber says when their daughter was a teenager, the couple felt they had to hide who they were when her friends came over.

“We did not want to put her in a position to have to explain her family, which was very sad and very awkward for all of us,” she says.

Nowadays, she says, attitudes have dramatically changed.

She says, “It’s not an issue. It’s not something we discuss, you know? Our family is our family.”

The National Center for Lesbian Rights is providing legal help in the case. The center’s Shannon Minter says last year’s Supreme Court ruling created a flood of legal action in states including Utah, Ohio and Oklahoma—all of them citing the high court’s Windsor ruling as precedent.

“It’s very difficult to see how the court, once it has held, for example, as it did in Windsor, that when the government discriminates between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples, that that violates basic principles of due process and equal protection, it’s hard to see why those same principles would not apply to state governments,” he says.

Minter says the U.S. Supreme Court would have to rule again for all state same-sex marriage bans to be struck down. He says the case in what’s expected to soon become the third-most-populous state could be the decider.

“Florida is such an important state in our country. I think people really see Florida as a kind of cultural leader, and there’s so many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Florida, it has such a vibrant gay community and there’s so many families affected,” he says.

But at the same time gay marriage supporters are mobilizing, the case has also invigorated groups that campaigned for the ban 62 percent of voters approved in 2008. Bishop Aubrey Shines preaches at Glory to Glory Ministries in Tampa. He says his and partner organizations are producing a video to distribute to church leaders across Florida.

“When this is all said and done, we’re gonna see not just the 60-plus percent of Floridians who have voted a certain kind of way, we believe that those numbers are actually going to be increased simply because the people will have a better understanding that when same-sex marriage comes into a state, it doesn’t just impact a-man-and-a-man and a-woman-and-a-woman, it impacts education. It impacts their business and their economy as well,” he says.

Shines says gay marriage leads to attacks on religious freedom. He points to the case of a Massachusetts fatherwho protested when his 6-year-old’s school distributed a book about diversity that included legally married gay parents. That man was arrested for trespassing and spent a night in jail.

And Shines says wedding florists and bakers are being driven out of business for refusing to serve gay couples. But Elizabeth Schwartz, one of the lawyers bringing the Florida case, counters that it’s not illegal to boycott a business if you disagree with the owner.

“It is a free marketplace. So certainly if they were upset that their actions had consequences, then that is not a matter of religious freedom, that is a matter of action and reaction,” she says.

Schwartz adds that religious exemptions exist so no one is forced to carry out a same-sex wedding ceremony if it conflicts with their views.