A federal judge has declared Florida's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, joining state judges in four counties who have sided with gay couples wishing to tie the knot.
When Democratic political operative Christian Ulvert started his career nearly a decade ago, he was in the closet.
Since then, Ulvert --- now the Florida Democratic Party's political director --- has come out in the open about his homosexuality, married his partner Carlos Andrade and seen his career skyrocket.
But it was U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle's ruling Thursday striking down Florida's ban on same-sex marriage that Ulvert said validated his personal journey.
"It's a judge recognizing my marriage to my husband in a state where I was born and raised. And it means that a law that discriminated against couples like me and Carlos is unconstitutional," said Ulvert, who married Andrade last year in Washington, D.C.
Ulvert --- who said his journey has morphed his sexuality from a political liability "to pride, joy and positive acceptance"---
and his partner are among nine sets of same-sex couples in two combined federal lawsuits challenging the state's ban on gay marriage. Hinkle's ruling is the latest in a string of court victories for same-sex couples and LGBT advocates in Florida but the first statewide ruling. Although gay couples won't be tying the knot in Florida any time soon because the judge placed a hold on his ruling, Hinkle's opinion is considered historic in a state where voters just six years ago placed a prohibition against gay marriage in the state constitution.
"The institution of marriage survived when bans on interracial marriage were struck down, and the institution will survive when bans on same-sex marriage are struck down. Liberty, tolerance, and respect are not zero-sum concepts. 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. Tolerating views with which one disagrees is a hallmark of civilized society," Hinkle wrote in a 33-page decision.
The lawsuit accuses the Florida prohibition on same-sex marriage of allowing disparate treatment, including in benefits extended to couples such as retirement plans and health insurance. The plaintiffs include Arlene Goldberg who married Carol Goldwasser in New York in 2011 and had been with her mate for 47 years. Goldberg sued because she could not receive Social Security survivor benefits after Goldwasser died earlier this year. Hinkle also ruled Thursday that Goldberg should be listed on her spouse's death certificate.
While advocates are celebrating the Tallahassee federal judge's decision, couples across the country like Ulvert and his partner are biding their time until the U.S. Supreme Court, which paved the way for Hinkle's ruling, renders a final decision on gay marriage.
In the meantime, Hinkle ruled that the ban interferes with couples' rights to due process and equal protection and likened the prohibition against same-sex unions to laws that prevented blacks and whites from marrying nearly 50 years ago. The U.S. Supreme Court, Hinkle wrote, has "sometimes listed marriage as the very paradigm of a fundamental right."
Hinkle rejected arguments that same-sex marriages should be banned because gay couples cannot procreate, saying that individuals who are medically unable to have children can marry in Florida and their marriages, if performed elsewhere, are recognized in the state.
"The undeniable truth is that the Florida ban on same-sex marriage stems entirely, or almost entirely, from moral disapproval of the practice," Hinkle wrote.
Hinkle's ruling comes after four similar state-court rulings in Florida since a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision last year in the United States v. Windsor case that overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Courts in 19 other states have since struck down restrictions on same-sex marriages in lawsuits sparked by the Supreme Court decision.
Florida Family Policy Council President John Stemberger, who drafted and pushed the 2008 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, said Thursday he was surprised by Hinkle's ruling because, in the Windsor decision, the Supreme Court had deferred in part to states to make decisions about gay marriage.
"People ask me, are you on the wrong side of history? To me, this issue will never be on the wrong side of history because it's rooted in the human experience. A little boy who longs to have a father in the inner city --- that will never be on the wrong side of history. The little girl who has two dads and doesn't have a mom and she wants someone to guide her through the changes that a woman's body goes through --- that's never going to be on the wrong side of history. And the beauty of how a man and woman come together and life is born and the next generation springs from that, that's never going to be on the wrong side of history," Stemberger said.
Like judges in the other Florida cases, Hinkle issued a stay of his ruling pending appeals. A spokesman for Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has represented the state in all of the cases, said her office is reviewing Hinkle's ruling.
Stemberger, however, said he remains hopeful.
"I'm done being discouraged. I'm done being happy when we win and sad when we lose. I just want to be faithful doing what I think is the right thing in the end," Stemberger said. "I can't control history. All I can do is use the influence that I have for the right thing."