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Politics

Gay-Marriage Decision Puts Florida on Notice

February 22, 2011 - 6:00pm

In an extraordinary move, the Obama administration's Justice Department announced Wednesday that it will no longer enforce a federal law barring gay marriage.

In Florida, where more than 60 percent of voters passed a constitutional ban on same-sex weddings, the action was denounced as an unprecedented attack on traditional marriage.

"It's outrageous that the chief executive of the country is failing to uphold the law," said John Stemberger, an Orlando attorney who led the successful 2008 ballot campaign to add a marriage-protection provision to the Florida Constitution.

"Every state that has voted on this issue has voted to do so by overwhelming majorities," Stemberger said.

But Florida Together, a gay-rights group, applauded Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement, predicting that it will "have a significant impact on marriage equality for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans."

"Clearly, the momentum is on our side. The tide has turned and it's in our favor," said Michael Kenny, executive director of the West Palm Beach-based advocacy group.

The federal Defense of Marriage Act law was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, amid concerns that courts, beginning with Massachusetts, were overturning state marriage laws and opening the door to gay weddings.

The law, which defines marriage between a man and a woman, effectively denies access to marriage-based federal benefits by same-sex couples.

In July, the U.S. Department of Justice had appealed a federal judge's ruling that struck down DOMA. But in a stunning about-face, Holder said Wednesday that he and President Barack Obama had determined that the law's key section is "unconstitutional."

The timing was curious from a legal standpoint, since the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take a California case challenging that state's defense-of-marriage initiative, approved by voters in 2008.

The administration's announcement was a political shock, as well. Since the shellacking Democrats suffered in the November election, Obama had tried to take a more centrist posture, supporting an extension of the Bush tax rates and reaching out to the business community.

With his decision, Obama rattled his support among African-Americans, who generally oppose same-sex marriage. Post-election analyses found that the large black voter turnout in California in 2008 helped provide the margin of victory for the state's marriage-protection initiative, which was on the ballot with Obama.

Florida, whose constitutional amendment passed easily with 61 percent of the vote, also has a state statute that mirrors the federal DOMA law.

Stemberger said the administration's abandonment of the federal law could "slowly undermine" state laws.

"If the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the California law violates the equal protection clause, that would clearly unravel all the laws," he said.

Kenny added, "It will be interesting to watch it evolve and how this will affect, long-term, the constitutional amendment here."

In the past, Obama has said he did not support the right of gay couples to marry. But in December, amid persistent lobbying by homosexual organizations, the president acknowledged that his views were "evolving.''

Brian Winfield, director of communications for Equality Florida, said that the administration's decision should expand the number of states where Florida gay couples could go to marry.

"This is not just a political football," Winfield said. "There are some 1,100 benefits to be had at the federal level -- real things like retirement benefits, Social Security, medical rights and the enhanced ability to take care of one another."

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi declined to comment.

Last year, a court declared Florida's ban on adoption by same-sex couples unconstitutional.

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Reach Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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