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Paramedic's Suit Leads to Overturn of Fla. Gay Marriage Ban

Aug. 22--A federal judge on Thursday declared unconstitutional Florida's gay marriage ban, which was approved by a voter referendum in 2008.

U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle in Tallahassee compared the state ban on gay marriage to earlier laws preventing interracial marriage, struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967.

"When observers look back 50 years from now, the arguments supporting Florida's ban on same-sex marriage, though just as sincerely held, will again seem an obvious pretext for discrimination," he wrote. "Observers who are not now of age will wonder just how those views could have been held."

The decision involves a challenge brought by a Palm Beach Gardens couple and nine other couples. It will have no immediate effect on gay couples in Florida who are looking to marry. Nor will it affect Florida couples seeking to have marriages that were performed in other states recognized. The judge issued a stay, giving the state time to appeal, before anyone is allowed to act on the ruling.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said Thursday she expects to do just that.

"Six years ago, by over 62 percent of the vote, the voters of this state put that into our constitution. That is part of the constitution which I am sworn to uphold," Bondi said, speaking to Republican activists during a visit to Palm Beach County GOP headquarters in West Palm Beach.

She said she had not yet had a chance to read the ruling. Bondi has appealed rulings by state judges that struck down the ban in Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties.

Nineteen federal courts have found bans on gay marriage unconstitutional since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2013 that the federal government cannot discriminate against married lesbian and gay couples in determining federal benefits. Hinkle argued that that line of decisions illustrates a trajectory similar to one noted by Martin Luther King Jr. in civil rights cases. "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice," Hinkle wrote, paraphrasing King.

Hinkle found that applies to gay and straight couples.

Gay marriage advocates applauded Hinkle's determination "that marriage is a fundamental right."

"We are thrilled that these loving and committed couples will soon have the same protections and security for their families that other married couples have," said Daniel Tilley, the ACLU of Florida's staff attorney for LGBT rights. "Florida's refusal to recognize their marriages serves no legitimate purpose and is hurtful to Florida families. We're very pleased to see the ban held unconstitutional in such unequivocal terms so that all Florida families will soon finally have the same protections."

The ACLU represented couples in this case.

Rand Hoch, president and founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, called the decision "the best news for lesbian and gay couples to come out of Florida so far this cycle."

Bondi's appeal will send the case to "a very conservative court, and that has me a little bit concerned," he said.

An appeal would bring the case before the United State Appeals Court for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

While the two sides disagree on virtually every aspect of this case, the one point on which they agree is that they expect the matter to end up on the steps of the United States Supreme Court.

Bondi wants the Supreme Court will bring "finality" to conflicting rulings around the country.

"Ultimately, no matter what any of the lower courts rule, they're going to be the decision makers. They're the judiciary and they're going to be the ones to hear this, sooner than later," she said.

The case before Hinkle in Tallahassee was brought by nine gay couples married outside the state, including Sloan Grimsley and Joyce Albu of Palm Beach County, along with a couple of 15 years who wish to marry in Florida. An advocacy group also filed suit.

Grimsley, a firefighter and paramedic for Palm Beach Gardens, married Albu in New York in 2011. They have adopted two children.

In their lawsuit, the couple argued that if Grimsley were killed in the line of duty, her spouse would not receive the same support Florida provides surviving spouses of married couples of different genders.

Hinkle agreed that the couples have the same rights as couples of opposite genders.

Those who enter opposite-sex marriages are harmed not at all when others, including these plaintiffs, are given the liberty to choose their own life partners and are shown the respect that comes with formal marriage," he wrote. "Tolerating views with which one disagrees is a hallmark of civilized society."

Staff Writer George Bennett contributed to this story.

Copyright 2014 - The Palm Beach Post, Fla.

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