MANATEE -- Gay couples who want to get married in Manatee and Sarasota counties will be able to do so for the first time Tuesday.
Following a 90-minute telephone meeting of Florida's county clerks on Friday, Manatee County Clerk Chips Shore and Sarasota County Clerk Karen Rushing said their offices will comply with a federal judge's order to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The announcement came after the final hurdle on Florida's path to becoming the 36th state in the nation to legalize gay marriage was cleared on New Year's Day.
"It's a huge relief to me to have it over with because everybody knew we were going to do it," Shore said Friday, minutes after getting off the call with the state's other clerks to confirm compliance on the issue. "It was just a matter of whether anyone was going to jail or not."
Federal Judge Robert Hinkle issued an injunction in August that proclaimed Florida's 2008 voter-approved gay marriage ban unconstitutional. He made his injunction effective as of Jan. 5 to give the state time to appeal the order.
Local same-sex couples who have been looking forward to getting married in Florida have long been ready for the legal wrangling to be over. Bradenton resident Karen Magee and her fiance, Andrea Rankin, said that while they would have preferred to have married at the beginning of their 10-year engagement, they're excited to finally tie the knot. They'll pick up their marriage certificate next week.
"At this point, it will be a great celebration of getting the same rights as our heterosexual friends," Magee said.
Magee and Rankin plan to hold their wedding in February.
For the court, state and county officials involved in the strikedown of the gay marriage ban, Hinkle's August order became a source for months of legal battle. Those standing in the way of the issuance of licenses to gay couples included the state's attorney general, Pam Bondi. Bondi, who challenged Hinkle's injunction on appeal and later asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the order, acknowledged in a written statement Thursday that she would make no further efforts to defend the gay marriage ban.
County clerks, who issue the state's marriage licenses, were the last gatekeeper for the marriage ban. On Dec. 16, the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers association advised its members against issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Legal counsel for the association told members they might be committing a crime if they did so without further clarification of Hinkle's order.
On Friday, the association's attorney advised them to begin issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples in every Florida county.
A number of gay couples are expected to show up at the clerk's office in downtown Bradenton when it opens at 8:30 a.m. next Tuesday. Shore said his office has been getting three or four calls a day from same-sex couples seeking information on getting marriage licenses.
But he has no idea exactly how many will be in line on Day 1.
"I know we'll probably have a couple dozen," Shore said. "Maybe I'll be surprised, maybe it'll be 100."
Terry Davis and Greg McKinney, who have been partners for 20 years, will be one of that number. They're looking forward to engagement giving way to marriage.
"We're both so on cloud nine excited," Davis said. "It's just a really big step for us."
Shore is asking that couples seeking marriage licenses go to the clerk's website, manateeclerk.com, to fill out an "e-marriage" form prior to appearing in his office in person. Doing so will quicken the issuance of licenses, he said.
Couples obtaining marriage licenses must wait three days before those licenses become valid, unless they have had approved pre-marital counseling.
Some local officiants will be on hand on the Manatee County Courthouse steps Tuesday morning to turn marriage certificates into legal marriages. The Rev. Bob Sichta, pastor at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Bradenton, will be one of them.
"We'll be in robes to do services for people if they'd like to get married on the spot," he said.
Same-sex marriages will beging even earlier in Broward County. The Broward County Clerk will begin issuing marriage licenses on Tuesday at 12:01 a.m. A mass wedding is planned to be held there at 3 a.m., according to the Miami Herald.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.