DOMA defeat bittersweet for gay-marriage activists in Florida, Manatee

jdela@bradenton.comJune 27, 2013 

MANATEE -- While gay rights supporters around the country celebrated Wednesday's Supreme Court decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, the celebration in Florida was much more subdued.

Activists say the court decision, which struck down the 1996 law blocking federal recognition of gay marriage, will have little effect on Florida, which passed a constitutional amendment in 2008 banning gay marriage.

Patty Petruff, a Bradenton lawyer, said she was thrilled to hear about Wednesday's Supreme Court decision.

"It was something I did not expect to see in my lifetime," she said.

Petruff, who has spent 35 years practicing law in Bradenton, has represented gays and lesbians in the fight for basic rights others take for granted.

"It's a first step," she said. "There's still work to be done."

John Desmond, president of the Tampa chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said the news is good for any lesbian couples living in the 12 states with legalized marriage. It's a "ho-hum" moment for Florida residents, he said.

"Nothing [today] has any effect on us," he said.

Some officials took comfort in that fact. T.J. Tatum, spokesman for Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, issued a prepared statement: "The congressman is grateful that the court's ruling respects the sovereignty of the states to make their own decisions on this matter, ensuring that the voice of the people remains the driving force behind marriage laws in Florida."

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Venice, which includes Manatee County, also issued a statement in support of the state position on gay rights.

"While no human institution is perfect, research supports marriage between a man and a woman to be a solid foundation upon which families are able to thrive. ... The Diocese of Venice, along with many other institutions and organizations, will continue to uphold marriage as being between one man and one woman," the statement said.

Gay rights supporters expressed concern about the difficulties gay couples face in everyday life. Petruff said she's all too familiar with the current system, which she says discriminates against gay couples.

"The reality of how the law operates is often very harsh," she said. "It's very difficult to see the inequities that play out and wreak havoc with people's lives."

She counsels couples to arm themselves with paperwork such as living wills, powers of attorney and legal agreements. Even then, she said, it still can be difficult for a person to do something as simple as visit a partner in the hospital.

"It's not a perfect solution," Petruff said.

State Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, elected in 2012, is one of two openly gay state legislators, along with David Richardson of Miami Beach -- the first in Florida history. He said Florida's reluctance to recognize gay marriage will eventually hurt the economy as companies and people relocate to Florida.

"Gays and lesbians will realize as soon as they cross the state line, they become second-class citizens," Saunders said. "Who would want to move here?"

Petruff, who is gay with a partner and a native Floridian, said inequality is simply a fact of her life.

"You choose your battles wisely," she said. "You arm yourself with what you can do."

Petruff and others say the Supreme Court decision gives local supports a reason to hope.

"It's going to be very interesting to see how this is going to play out," she said, "and it may play out again in a courtroom. If you get married up north and retire in Florida, what happens? If a military couple is reassigned to Florida, how will the state treat their marriage?"

Jim DeLa, East Manatee editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JimDeLaBH.

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