January 6 was a monumental day as marriage equality finally came to Florida, and loving same-sex couples were granted the legal right to marry. Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel’s decision not only sparked jubilant celebrations across the state, it also served as an important reminder of the impact the judicial system has on critical issues, including Floridians’ basic human rights.
When it comes to equality, Florida has come a long way since the days of Anita Bryant. But even in recent years there have been many obstacles along the path to marriage equality – in fact, much of the state’s political leadership fought against marriage equality every step of the way.
The Republican Party of Florida spent more than $300,000 to help place Amendment 2, the ban on same-sex marriage, on the 2008 ballot. Gov. Rick Scott tried to dodge the issue on the campaign trail, but he has consistently stood on the wrong side of marriage equality. He supported the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would prohibit marriage equality, and affirmed his support for Amendment 2. More recently Attorney General Pam Bondi mounted a legal effort to defend Florida’s same-sex marriage ban even though numerous courts had already found similar bans unconstitutional.
Bondi has been almost like a modern-day Anita Bryant. Last year in court documents she defended the discriminatory law by asserting that same-sex marriage would “impose significant public harm” on Florida, and further implied that same-sex families were not stable.
Bondi declared that she was “defending the voters” who passed the 2008 amendment, saying “anything less than the best defense of our voters’ policy preferences would disenfranchise the electorate…and cast aside the professional responsibility that guides me every day as Attorney General.” But when members of the Florida Legislature conspired to gerrymander district maps in violation of the voter-passed Fair Districts amendments, Bondi didn’t lift a finger.
Florida would not have reached this historic point if not for the dedicated efforts of organizations like Equality Florida and SAVE, along with countless individuals, including the brave couples who took a legal stand in order to secure marriage equality for all of Florida. There should be no shortage of rejoicing over the tremendous progress that has been made. But it also took a fair and impartial judicial system to overcome the entrenched bigotry of Florida’s political leaders. Many Floridians would still be denied the right to marry – and Florida would be a national embarrassment – if not for our courts.
Across the country, when legislators and states were behind the times in supporting equality, our courts paved the way in establishing legal equality for the LGBT community. In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Colorado law that prohibited the LGBT community from receiving specific legal protections. In 2003, the high court struck down a Texas law that outlawed consensual gay sex. In 2013, the court paved the way for marriage equality by ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional, conveying more than a thousand federal benefits and programs that were previously denied to same-sex couples.
Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide if the U.S. Constitution guarantees all Americans the right to same-sex marriage. This historic ruling, expected later this year, has the potential to legalize marriage equality in all 50 states.
The issue of marriage equality is a prime example of the vital role our courts play in the lives of all Americans. A fully functioning and impartial judicial system is necessary to continue holding the forces of intolerance in check.
Mark Ferrulo is the executive director of Progress Florida, a statewide progressive advocacy organization.