Florida’s attorney general raised eyebrows with a brief filed in a case that challenges the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
Eight gay couples who were married in states that recognize same-sex marriages joined with the American Civil Liberties Union in filing suit against Florida. Their lawsuit argues that the state unfairly discriminates against them by not recognizing their marriage, violating the Florida and U.S. Constitutions.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a response asking the federal judge in charge of the case to throw it out. This is no surprise. Arguably, it is required of her office. But it is her choice of words that has some gay marriage advocates expressing indignation.
Bondi’s legal brief included the following: “The Court should also deny the preliminary injunction motions because there is no likelihood of success on the merits, there is no immediacy requiring a preliminary injunction and disrupting Florida’s existing marriage laws would impose significant public harm.”
On May 30, the attention of gay rights activists and the news media turned to that last word: “harm.” Some took it as evidence of the attorney general’s malice, bigotry or outdated prejudice.
In response, Allen Winsor released a statement from the attorney general’s office. It clarified that, “Florida is harmed whenever a federal court enjoins” – that is, prevents – “enforcement of its laws … Florida’s voters approved a constitutional amendment which is being challenged, and it is the attorney general’s duty to defend Florida law.”
Perhaps Bondi should have chosen her words more carefully. But what is truly important and interesting about this case is not the attorney general’s position on it, but the stakes for Florida family law and for Florida same-sex couples. In states where gay marriage is not recognized, the issues couples face are diverse.
First, of course, is the fact that many Florida same-sex couples wish to marry but cannot. Then, like the plaintiffs in this case, some are married under the laws of recognizing states, but live in a non-recognizing state. Still other couples – at least one of whom has filed a separate lawsuit against Florida – were legally married in another state but wish to divorce. The spouses are unable to do so because their marriage is not legally recognized in the Sunshine State.
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down both a federal law preventing the recognition of same-sex marriages for federal benefits and a California law banning same-sex marriage. Since then, efforts to fight such bans have gained momentum state by state.
Many Floridians are anxious to see the outcome.