Manatee residents offer mixed responses to gay marriage ruling

kirby@bradenton.comJuly 17, 2014 

MANATEE -- After a judge in the Florida Keys ruled the state ban on gay marriage unconstitutional Thursday, local residents had mixed reactions.

The ruling by Circuit Judge Luis Garcia has no immediate effect on Manatee County and only directly applies to Monroe County, where gay marriage licenses could be issued as early as Tuesday.

Manatee County could see the effects of this case in a few years as it travels through the appeals process.

Attorney General Pam Bondi has already filed an intent to appeal to the Third District Court of Appeals. If the appeal is accepted, it would go to the Florida Supreme Court.

Ken Shelin, chairman of the state board of Equality Florida, said it means great things for him and his partner of 38 years.

"It means there's a possibility that we could get married, if that's what we decide to do. And we probably will," Shelin said. "We've spent a lot of time and energy creating trusts and situations where we can take care of one another. But now, if we can get married, it makes everything so much simpler, so much easier."

The case came to court after Key West bartenders Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, who met at a gay pride celebration and have been a couple for 11 years, sued the Monroe County clerk after she denied their request for a marriage license April 1.

The denial was based on a Florida constitutional amendment approved by a 62-38 margin in 2008 that bans same-sex marriage throughout the state. But Garcia ruled the amendment is unconstitutional.

"The court is aware that the majority of voters oppose same-sex marriage, but it is our country's proud history to protect the rights of the individual, the rights of the unpopular and the rights of the powerless, even at the cost of offending the majority," Garcia wrote in the decision.

The couple also asked the judge to rule unconstitutional the statute that Florida will not recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. The judge found the couple didn't have standing in that case and issued no ruling.

That disappointed Jason Champion and Jim Del Rio, who married just outside of Boston seven years ago, but they were happy about the decision regardless.

"Our marriage is recognized federally, but we're looking forward to a time when it's recognized by the state of Florida," Del Rio said. "And this is one step closer to that."

"One step at a time," Champion added.

Some Manatee residents agreed with the decision, others didn't.

"I don't care whether gay people get married or not, but if people have decided by vote that they don't want to have gay marriage, then that's the way it should be," said Rich Campagna, a two-year resident. "That's what should stand if that's what the people want, not some judge who gives his personal opinion."

Chris Andri, a five-year resident, said he believes the issue has changed since 2008, and welcomes the judge's decision.

"It's a national trend right now, and the law will rewrite itself in time," Andri said. "We'll see what happens in Florida, but I think it's a step forward for the people as a whole as far as expressionism goes, so I'm excited to hear that."

Kelley Bilbrey, a 25-year Manatee resident, said people are free to love whomever they want but that doesn't mean they have a right to get married.

"God says no, a man and a man cannot be married and a woman and a woman cannot be married. It's not in the Bible to do so. It's actually an abomination to do so," Bilbrey said.

"I know it's kind of contradicting when I say love who you want to love. I just think as far as being married-wise, it's against the Bible so I'm against it."

But Andrew Fisher, 30-year resident, said loving who you want to love includes the right to marry.

"Everyone has a right to love whomever they want to love, and they should be free to marry whomever they want to marry, especially in Florida," Fisher said. "I think the lift on the ban is progressive. It's the right thing to do and it's a smart move for Florida."

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