Florida Gay Marriage Supporters Strategize To Overturn State Ban

Jul 05, 2013 | Updated Sep 04, 2013

Energized by the Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage, gay activists and their straight allies are chomping at the bit to overturn Florida's ban.

They've spent the nine days since the court acted trying to figure out the best strategy:

--Gathering signatures to place an amendment on the November 2014 ballot.

--Asking the state Legislature to pass a same-sex marriage amendment.

--Filing a lawsuit to get the courts to invalidate the Florida ban.

"The relevance and the momentum is now," said Vanessa Brito, co-chairwoman of the group Equal Marriage Florida. "It is a relevant issue that everybody is paying attention to, not just the [gay and lesbian] community."

Though advocates for same-sex marriage have the same objective, they're divided over how best to get there.

Constitutional amendment

Brito's group started gathering signatures this week to get a referendum on the November 2014 ballot, when Floridians will go to the polls to elect a governor.

The proposed amendment would define marriage as the union of "two persons," replacing the "one man and one woman" definition voters added to the Florida Constitution in 2008. It also includes a provision protecting religious institutions from having to conduct marriages that violate their religious beliefs.

Brito said it's important to have a vote in 2014 to capitalize on the current momentum in favor of same-sex-marriage. About three in 10 Americans live in the 13 states and District of Columbia where same-sex marriage is legal. Another 29 states, including Florida, have bans in their state constitutions.

It's unclear if there's enough support to repeal Florida's ban, which passed in 2008 with 62 percent of the vote, including 52 percent in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Of the 500 Floridians surveyed in March by Public Policy Polling, 38 percent said gay couples should be allowed to legally marry, 37 percent said gay couples should be allowed to form civil unions but not marry, and 23 percent said there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple's relationship.

Other polls that ask about same-sex marriage but don't offer a civil union option show higher support for gay marriage, but it's still fall short of the 60 percent of the vote required to change the state Constitution.

"The 60 percent threshold is still something that's quite high," said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida who's studied same-sex marriage referendums around the country.

Moreover, in midterm elections between presidential contests, turnout slips -- especially among younger voters and Democrats, two groups that are the biggest supporters of same-sex marriage.

A better strategy for people who want to repeal the ban, Smith said, would be to wait until the 2016 presidential election "when you're going to have a groundswell of Democratic support and you're also going to have more young people in the electorate."

Rand Hoch, is pessimistic about a referendum passing in 2014 or 2016. "It's very difficult to amend the Constitution," said Hoch, founder and president of the gay rights group Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. "I'm not optimistic that we're going to be able to change it here in Florida."

The Florida Legislature could place a proposed constitutional amendment before voters, something state Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, the Senate Democratic leader, and state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, would like to see.

But Moskowitz said he sees "zero" chance that will happen in the next few years. Smith said he doesn't plan to sponsor a constitutional amendment himself because he's not interested in engaging in any Don Quixote missions.

Judicial action

Hoch, a lawyer, said he thinks the most likely route to legalizing same-sex marriage in Florida is through the courts.

He thinks it may ultimately happen if the U.S. Supreme Court hears a case in the future that directly deals with the question of whether a state ban on same-sex marriage violates the Constitution. Neither of last week's cases dealt directly with that issue.

Equality Florida, the state's biggest gay rights group, is looking at the judicial approach. The group's executive director Nadine Smith, said "every option remains on the table," but the organization is considering a lawsuit challenging Florida's ban on same-sex marriage.

Earlier this week it put out a call four couples willing to serve as plaintiffs "in a marriage equality lawsuit." Equality Florida is clearly looking for sympathetic stories; volunteer couples were asked if they'd be willing to speak publicly and to describe their stories and family situations.

Within two hours, the group said more than 200 couples responded online.

That approach doesn't offer the prospect of change in Florida any time soon. "It will be a while," Hoch said. Also, based on last week's rulings, there's no indication that the justices who currently make up the Supreme Court are interested in considering that question.


Even though supporters of same-sex marriage are enjoying the momentum of the Supreme Court rulings and victories in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington last fall, there's strong opposition in many states, including Florida.

Jannique Stewart, of Coconut Creek, said she's confident that opponents of same-sex marriage will prevail if the issue comes before Florida voters.

In 2008, she was South Florida spokeswoman for the campaign that won passage of the constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in the state.

"We're going to stay in the fight because it's worth it. I do believe we are going to win again. There is no doubt in my mind the voters will see through any type of lie or any type of misconception," she said.

Stewart is executive director of Love Protects, a Christian ministry that believes in a Biblical approach to sexuality, and said her organization is already planning in case mobilization is necessary.

"We're going to do our part again of protecting the family, protecting, preserving the sanctity of marriage," she said. 'We are going to go on and do our part and make sure that we educate the public [to] see the difference between homosexual relationships and traditional marriage the way God designed it."

Pastor Mark Boykin of Church of All Nations in Boca Raton said people who believe marriage is limited to male-female couples "are going to defend our rights."

"We owe it to our families, we owe it to our community and our nation at large to stand for traditional family values, and that means traditional marriage," he said.

Getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot

How many signatures does it take?

Signatures from 8 percent of people who voted in the last presidential election, which works out to 683,149. They must come from at least 14 of the Florida's 27 congressional districts.

What is the deadline?

Feb. 1 for the 2014 general election.

How much does it cost?

Groups that want an amendment have to pay the government to verify the petition signatures. Equal Marriage Florida estimates verification and costs of gathering signatures could reach $3 million.

Source: Florida Division of Elections, Equal Marriage Florida, 954-356-4550

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