ACLU: Florida will have to be forced to allow gay rights

srothaus@MiamiHerald.comJuly 29, 2013 

Gay marriage will "be imposed" on Florida by the U.S. Supreme Court before state voters, judges or lawmakers would repeal a 2008 constitutional ban, predicts ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon.

"I don't want to build up any false expectations that it would be good to run back to the ballot right now, or that it would be good to think that we should file a lawsuit any time until the hearts and minds change more and the environment changes a bit more," said Simon, whose organization has joined with three major gay-rights groups to coordinate strategy for securing gay marriage in Florida.

On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, ruling the federal government must recognize legal marriages of same-sex couples performed internationally, in 13 states and the District of Columbia. The high court did not consider the portion of DOMA that allows states to not recognize same-sex marriages.

Thirty-seven states, including Florida, have laws banning gay marriage, creating "legal chaos" for married gay couples, Simon said.

"Legal experts and community activists at the national and state level are exploring all the options for challenging those bans -- legislative action, ballot referendums and

legal challenges," according to a statement released by Equality Florida, the state's leading gay-rights group, the ACLU of Florida, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal.

It's unlikely Florida's 2008 Amendment 2, which defined marriage as between a man and woman, could be overturned at this time, said Nadine Smith, Equality Florida's executive director.

Instead, Equality Florida is focusing on an educational campaign called Get Engaged.

"There are two places that we're really investing," Smith said. "When you look at the places where marriage equality has come, through the legislature or through the ballot, it's preceded by a deep investment of a public education campaign that humanizes these issues."

Lesbian political strategist Vanessa Brito of Miami has begun a petition drive to put the gay-marriage issue on the 2014 Florida ballot.

"In three weeks, we collected nearly 40,000 signatures," Brito said, adding that if polling in January shows the measure can't pass in November 2014, she would hold her petitions two more years.

Recent polling in Florida shows about 54 percent of voters now support gay marriage. It would take 60 percent plus one vote to repeal the gay marriage ban.

Simon and Smith believe that's not possible -- now.

"People have to be realistic," Simon said. "We have a high hurdle to jump over in Florida, which is the 60 percent rule."

The ACLU and other groups believe Florida will get full gay-marriage equality only when the rest of the United States gets it.

"The ACLU is working now to secure the equal right to marry nationwide by following up our U.S. Supreme Court victory in the Windsor case with lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina," Simon said. "An extensive analysis of the national landscape makes it clear that, given the political environment in Florida, including the decidedly unprogressive state of our federal appeals court, we are more likely to secure the right to marry for Florida's same-sex couples from victories in other states than by initiating either a lawsuit or a referendum in Florida."

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