Florida's ban on same-sex marriage is under attack in multiple courtrooms, a fight that's spilling out onto the 2014 campaign trail.
Advocates of same-sex marriage are convinced it's a matter of when — not if — gay marriage becomes legal in Florida.
“We’ll definitely have it here in Florida,” said Rand Hoch, president and founder of the gay rights group Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. “In another few years, there won’t be ‘gay marriage.’ There’s just going to be ‘marriage.’”
Stephen Muffler, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who married his husband Lisandro Depaula in New York in 2012, said, "I'm very optimistic — more optimistic now than I have ever been."
That outlook is justified, said Joseph Jackson, a University of Florida law professor who has written court briefs in cases involving same-sex couples and their family relationships. "The trend of court decisions is quite clear."
The timing is uncertain. A ruling in one of the two highest profile cases — filed in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the gay rights group Safeguarding American Values for Everyone — could come at any time. A hearing in a second major case, filed by the Equality Florida gay rights group and the National Center for Lesbian Rights in state court, is set for July 2. A total of eight cases are pending in Florida circuit and appellate courts and in federal court.
Rulings in favor of same-sex marriage may not produce an immediate rush to the altar. Jackson said the cases could take 18 months to two years to work their way through appeals.
Supporters of the 2008 amendment that enshrined the ban on same-sex marriage in the Florida Constitution are outraged that courts might undo their work. The referendum passed with 62 percent of the vote statewide and 52 percent in Broward County.
"I am hoping and praying that that's not what's going to happen," said Jannique Stewart, of Coconut Creek, president of Love Protects, a Fort Lauderdale-based Christian ministry that believes in a biblical approach to sexuality. She was the South Florida spokeswoman for the amendment's supporters.
"We voted on this in 2008, we didn't vote on this in the 1800s," Stewart said. "I think it would be really appalling if judges chose to ignore the will of the people."
Mark D. Boykin, senior pastor of Church of All Nations in Boca Raton, said court action would be "an outrage" and "un-American."
“The people have made their wishes known,” Boykin said. “This is just a back door way to try and get what they want and circumvent the people. If they truly want this it should not come from the courts. The courts adjudicate, they don’t legislate. They have inverted our system and now if they don’t get what they want by the ballot initiative, they turn to the courts, some rogue judge.”
Muffler said that's exactly what the courts are designed to do. "Traditionally that's where minorities seek justice," he said. "We have to rely on the court systems to right the wrongs and protect minorities from the majority."
Stewart said she believes it is "disrespectful" for supporters of same-sex marriage to compare their cause to the civil rights movement and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that put an end to bans on interracial marriage.
"Nobody is saying that homosexuals need to sit in the back of the bus. Nobody is suggesting in any way that they need separate water fountains. No one is even telling them they can't love," she said. "All we're saying is do not change the existing definition of marriage."
The U.S. Supreme Court advanced same-sex marriage in a pair of rulings on June 26, 2013, striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and letting stand a lower court ruling that allowed same-sex marriage in California. The justices allowed state bans on same-sex marriage to continue.
A legal filing by state Attorney General Palm Bondi in the ACLU's federal case has helped turn same-sex marriage into a 2014 political issue.
She ignited a political firestorm by telling the court that "Florida's marriage laws, then, have a close, direct, and rational relationship to society's legitimate interest in increasing the likelihood that children will be born to and raised by the mothers and fathers who produced them in stable and enduring family units."
After Democrats and gay rights advocates hammered Republican Bondi, she said in a statement that "voters had the right to adopt this definition of marriage" and said she felt compelled to mount "the best defense of our voters' policy preferences."
Hoch said Bondi, who has been divorced twice, has no business "saying who can and can't get married. She's not the poster child for marriage."