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Saturday, Mar 28, 2015

Florida, U.S. will embrace same-sex marriage in time


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When Gov. Lawton Chiles decided to let Florida’s “Defense Of Marriage Act” become law in 1997, he foresaw what’s going on in America today regarding same-sex marriage.

“I believe that, by and large, most Floridians are tolerant and will one day come to view a broader range of domestic partnerships as an acceptable part of life,” Chiles said. “But that is not the case today.”

It’s not the case today, either, but it will be tomorrow. It’s probably a distant tomorrow, but the day will dawn when Florida recognizes civil unions among couples who can’t, or for some reason won’t, get married.

It could happen next summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the federal DOMA and a legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. That may be a mixed bag for each side -- the justices probably striking DOMA because marriage is a state issue, while upholding Prop. 8 for the same reason.

On top of its 1997 state DOMA, Florida has a 2008 constitutional amendment denying legal recognition of a same-sex union as a marriage or as “the substantial equivalent” of marriage. That language matters because, unless the Supreme Court throws out all impediments to civil unions, any statutory liberalization will be challenged under the state constitutional provision.

How we got here is interesting. From the infamous Charley Johns committee’s campus witch hunts of the 1950s to Anita Bryant’s successful 1977 campaign to repeal a Miami-Dade County human rights ordinance (now reinstated), Florida has had quite a history in gay politics.

Several states started passing DOMA laws in the mid-1990s, when Hawaii’s Supreme Court was considering gay marriage.

Republicans had just cemented their hold on the Florida Legislature by taking over the House in 1996. Two Tampa lawmakers, Sen. John Grant and future Speaker Johnnie Byrd, introduced the state-level DOMA and it passed with much fanfare but little resistance.

A few liberal Democrats said there was no compelling state interest in denying gay couples civil marriage licenses, any more than the law needed to deny them driving license, building permits or anything else the government provides other citizens. A few lawmakers said what Chiles said -- that public attitudes on domestic partnerships were changing, and the law should change with them.

Before the Senate roll call on the state DOMA, then-Sen. Daryl Jones, D-Miami, made a brief speech about changing times. It’s not about gays, he said, it’s about recognizing the reality of adults living together in long-term relationships. The “Father Knows Best” family model of the 1950s is no more -- if it ever really existed at all -- and Jones said the law should recognize that couples were “shacking up” for many reasons.

In Florida, particularly, tens of thousands of elderly couples stay single so a widow won’t lose her late husband’s pension or lose some Social Security benefits or because marrying might complicate inheritance arrangements for their kids. Jones told the Senate the Byrd-Grant bill was sure to pass that day, but the state should start getting ready for change that was already well under way.

Last week, Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, won passage of a domestic-partner registration system in her Children and Families Committee. It has no chance of passage, this year or any time soon, but the committee’s 5-4 vote was significant.

If you doubt the times are changing, consider that U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., changed his mind and said he will support same-sex marriage. President Obama carried the state in 2008, the year the “marriage protection” constitutional amendment polled 62 percent of the vote, and again in 2012, a few months after he publicly endorsed gay marriage. Two openly gay House members were elected last November.

A majority of Floridians now live in cities and counties that forbid discrimination on the basis of sexuality and many also recognize civil partnerships -- as do many of the state’s major employers. Support of gay marriage now a litmus test for Democratic political candidates.

Republicans have not “evolved” as Nelson and Obama did. When his bill became law in 1997, Grant remarked said it was “great that it takes effect on June 4, right smack dab in the middle of Gay Pride Week.” In the 2004 U.S. Senate race, supporters of Mel Martinez smeared GOP rival Bill McCollum as “the new darling of the homosexual left” because, as a congressman, McCollum had voted to include gays in hate-crime protections.

Except for Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who cited his gay son for changing his mind, we are not seeing any movement on the issue in the GOP. But polls now show majority support for gay marriage, and politicians follow polls.

Perhaps most significantly, as the Washington Post’s conservative columnist George F. Will points out, opposition to gay marriage is literally dying off -- young people just don’t think it’s a big deal.

Every current legislator will be term-limited out of Tallahassee before anything like Sobel’s civil partner-registry bill passes. And it will be even longer before 60 percent of the voters will repeal the 2008 marriage-definition constitutional amendment.

But whether the Supreme Court does it nationwide next summer or our children’s generation does it legislatively, it will happen.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter who covered state government and politics for 44 years with United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at

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