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Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Local judge deliberating same-sex marriage case

PLANTATION KEY -- Chief Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Luis Garcia told a packed courthouse Monday that he'll issue a ruling shortly on a Key West couple's effort to overturn Florida's constitutional ban on gay marriage.

In a hearing that lasted slightly more than 1 ¬½ hours Monday morning, lawyers for Bourbon Bar employees Aaron Huntsman, 43, and William Lee Jones, 42, argued that Florida's 2008 amendment banning gay marriage violates not only federal constitutional protections against discrimination but also the Florida Constitution's protection of privacy.

"There are no legal arguments here," attorney Elena Virgil-Farinas told the court. "There are no facts in dispute here. It is a manifestation of ignorance."

Huntsman and Jones sued Monroe County Clerk of Court Amy Heavilin in April for refusing to issue them a marriage license. On June 24, the office of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi joined in the defense.

Speaking briefly before Garcia on Monday, Clerk of Court Attorney Ron Saunders said the office had no choice but to deny the license under Florida law. But he added that they are taking no position on the merits of the gay marriage ban.

"The clerk's office will abide by any decision of the court," Saunders said.

Assistant Attorney General Adam Tanenbaum took a stronger stance, noting that the 2008 amendment that put the gay marriage ban into the Florida Constitution passed with 62 percent of the vote.

"That decision should be respected," Tanenbaum said.

But Tanenbaum, who kept his arguments in favor of the ban to just a few minutes, stayed away from statements supporting a rationale for the gay marriage prohibition.

That task fell instead to Mat Stavor, attorney for the nonprofit Liberty Foundation, a Christian group that opposes same-sex marriage. The Liberty Foundation is not a party to the case but has filed what is known as an amicus brief in support of the gay-marriage ban.

Pressed by Garcia to explain what rational basis Florida has to prohibit the marriage of a same-sex couple, Stavor argued that studies have shown that children do better when they are raised by a man and a woman rather than by parents of the same sex.

Redefining marriage, he said, "has huge consequential implications."

To the groans of some gay rights supporters in the courtroom, Stavor also said that allowing same-sex marriage is a slippery slope that could lead to legalized polygamy and polyandry.

"Those arguments are clearly being made in courts today," he said.

Huntsman's and Jones' case comes on the heels of 2013 U.S. Supreme court ruling requiring the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage. That decision, however, didn't touch upon state bans on gay marriage.

The issues that Huntsman and Jones have raised in their challenge are almost identical to those brought forward in January by six same-sex couples in Miami. A hearing in that case was held on July 2, but Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel, like Garcia, has yet to rule.

At both hearings, the plaintiffs were asking the court for a ruling in their favor on summary judgment -- meaning that it would be made without a trial. No matter what the circuit courts decide, the rulings in the two cases are likely to be appealed. The Monroe and Dade cases could be consolidated into one by a higher court.

During the Plantation Key hearing, Garcia peppered Tanenbaum and Stavor with questions regarding both the constitutionality and the rational purpose of the same-sex marriage ban.

For example, when Tanenbaum argued that the law should be upheld because it was passed by popular referendum, Garcia countered, "Wouldn't that same argument apply to interracial marriage?"

His questions were fewer and less combative with the plaintiffs.

"The questions were tough for our opponents and we take that as a good sign," Huntsman's and Jones' lead attorney Bernadette Restivo said shortly after the hearing.

Stavor cautioned against trying to read judges.

"I never determine how the case is going to go based on the questions," he said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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