Two employees of the 801 Bourbon Bar filed a civil lawsuit Monday against the Monroe County Clerk of Court for refusing them a marriage license in what could become the first Keys-based legal effort to overturn Florida's ban on same-sex marriage.
Aaron Huntsman, 43, and William Lee Jones, 42, will celebrate their 11th year together in June. They felt it was time to challenge Florida's Second Constitutional Amendment, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman and also banned gay civil unions in 2008.
Huntsman, a bartender at the 801 Bourbon Bar, said he and Jones, a liquor manager there, have seen the damage the ban has caused to customers and friends.
"We're been in a relationship for 11 years, and we're already in this for the long haul," Huntsman said. "We are already married in our eyes -- and I believe in God's eyes, too -- and we are being true to our hearts."
The couple went to Monroe County Clerk of Court Amy Heavlin's office on Monday and, as expected, were denied the license as per Florida law. Their lawyer, Bernadette Restivo, had already prepared a 20-page lawsuit that was immediately filed upon that refusal.
Similar to a case filed in January in Miami-Dade County by six same-sex couples, Huntsman and Jones argue that they are being deprived of their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property.
The lawsuit was filed in state circuit court and was scheduled to be heard before Judge David Audlin, who ruled in 2008 that the state's 1977 gay adoption ban was unconstitutional. That ruling made Key West residents Dan Skahen and Wayne LaRue Smith the first openly gay adoptive parents in the state.
The Third District Court of Appeal chose to uphold Audlin's ruling in 2010.
Huntsman and Jones' lawsuit is the first-step in a case that is highly expected to draw appeals from whichever side loses. That means the case could go before the Third District Court of Appeals, and perhaps the Florida Supreme Court and perhaps even the U.S. Supreme Court.
The lawsuit against the clerk of courts office is the first step in what is expected to be a long legal road in the case, said attorneys on both sides.
"They (Huntsman and Jones) know this a long journey, but they're in it to win it," Restivo said, adding that neither she nor her clients harbor any personal animosity against Heavlin or the clerk of court's office.
"They're sworn state constitutional officers and they're doing what they're have been sworn to do," Restivo said, meaning all elected officers in Florida take an oath to uphold the law, regardless of their personal feelings.
And that speaks to the heart of the lawsuit, said Ron Saunders, former Florida representative and current attorney for the clerk's office.
"Regardless of any personal opinion of any sworn officer, they are bound by their oath until those laws are changed," Saunders said. "We're not in the position of being a judge in the matter who interprets the law. We're in the position of administering the law. And right now it says what it says. This law was intentionally drafted to be specific, and in my opinion there's no real legal gray area. The question is whether this law is constitutional."
Another way to change the law would require legislators to draft a constitutional referendum that would go before voters, which would require a 60 percent vote to change the state constitution. With such a ballot question unlikely in the near future, Huntsman and Jones decided to use a different avenue available to citizens to address their grievances -- the judicial branch.
The lawsuit before Audlin will likely be a bench trial, meaning Audlin will listen to arguments on both sides and issue a ruling based his understanding of the law absent a jury.
"Why should the majority rule over the minority?" Huntsman said. "We're supposed to be protected under the 14th Amendment (The amendment that grants citizens equal protection under the law that was enacted after the Civil War post slavery). It's total discrimination, and Lee and I decided to fight for this."