On Wednesday afternoon, Miami Dade Circuit Court Judge Sarah Zabel presided over a hearing regarding an issue that has torn many Floridians apart-- whether lesbian and gay couples should be allowed to marry.
In 2008, 62 percent of Florida voters amended the state's constitution to only recognize marriages between a man and woman. This past January, six same-sex couples sued to challenge this law after Harvey Ruvin, the county clerk, refused to issue them marriage licenses.
Some conservative groups, such as the Christian Family Coalition (CFC), feel the voters' 2008 decision will be disrespected if Zabel rules in favor of the plaintiffs. However, the six couples believe their suit transcends state law and that their Constitutional guarantees are being infringed upon by not being allowed to marry.
"We want the legal protections marriage provides for our family," said Vanessa Alenier, who has an adopted son with her partner Melanie. "We are very hopeful and excited for the day we can marry in the state we love and live in. I'm a native Floridian and it's important for me to marry here."
When the couples arrived to the courtroom dozens of spectators met them with applause and snapped pictures of them on their phones.
When the plaintiffs took their seats in the first two rows, a mob of people behind them rushed in to find seats-- hundreds of people clamoring to be a part of history. With a jam-packed room, those who arrived late were sent to an overflow room.
Behind the Aleniers sat Todd and Jeff Delmay, who are also challenging the ban. "It was truly amazing to sit beside my fiancée Todd as the hearing began because it felt that's where we both should have been," said Jeff. "We are fighting this battle together."
After the hearing's start, Assistant Attorney General Adam Tanenbaum, representing the state, told Zabel that it is not for her court to decide whether the voters' decision in 2008 was a good policy but to respect the state's amended constitution. Tanenbaum also argued that the U.S. Supreme Court has left the definition of marriage up to the states.
Jeffrey Michael Cohen, the attorney representing the six couples, rebutted that the amended constitution discriminates against gay and lesbian couples because it robs them of the same basic dignities heterosexual couples have in the eyes of the law. "The majority doesn't have the right to make some citizens secondhand citizens through decisions that lessen their dignity. That's using the majority to oppress the minority," said Cohen in an interview after the hearing. "If [same-couples couples] cannot marry then they don't have the benefits of the laws that protect married families. There are thousands of these laws, ranging from the right of inheriting property to taking care of a spouse who is sick in the hospital."
Zabel noted the recent swell of other court decisions that have ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, including a judge in Kentucky who struck down the state's similar ban on same-sex marriage the day before the hearing. Additionally, she critically questioned the defense on whether Miami-Dade County should only allow potentially procreative couples to marry.
A ruling could take days, weeks or even months. Both parties are planning to appeal if the judge rules against them.
After the hearing religious protestors rallied outside of the courthouse. They are concerned that if Zabel rules in favor of marriage equality then parents will have no rights regarding the teaching about homosexual relationships in public schools. They feel outraged at the prospect of normalizing something they find reprehensible in light of their Scriptural beliefs.
The protestors, many of whom are tied with the CFC, began to cry in unison, "Respect my vote, respect my vote!" Some held banners with the image of Martin Luther King Jr., commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. On the banners there's a message to Judge Zabel, "Our voter rights are not negotiable."
According the CFC's website, "[LGBT Floridians] are legally bound to change laws dealing with public policy issues they don't agree with in the same exact way every other Floridian must do it: put the issue before a vote of the people."
However, advocates of the LGBT community, like the Equality Florida Institute and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, believe the American justice system has a duty to protect the equal rights of minorities and outlaw their discrimination. "It's too much of a risk to solely rely on the democratic process in bringing marriage equality to Florida because there are still very conservative communities in the state that are vehemently against gays and lesbians getting married," said Connie Siu, statewide coordinator for Equality Florida.
A total of 19 states now recognize same-sex marriage and an additional nine have overturned state bans and are currently in the appeals process. In the Sunshine State, recent polls suggest the majority of Floridians now support the legal recognition of same-sex couples.
Even with this shifting of views though, Equality Florida believes those in the state who are against same-sex marriage may mobilize to the polls in greater numbers because they feel their religious beliefs are being affronted.
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After the hearing, proponents of LGBT rights gathered in front of the courthouse not far from the CFC assembly. As the opponents shouted, "Enough is enough!" the LGBT activists momentarily silenced them by chanting together "Love is louder, love is louder!"
If Zabel rules in favor of the plaintiffs, then it could mark the first step in having same-sex marriage legalized in Florida-- granted the Third District Court of Appeals and the Florida State Supreme Court (and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court) agree with her decision.