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Florida clerks won't license same-sex marriages amid legal woes

By Megan Hamilton     Dec 28, 2014 in Politics
Orlando - Worried about being arrested, a majority of Florida's 67 court clerks won't issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on January 6, the Associated Press reports.
Why are the clerks holding back?
They say they are confused as to whether or not a ban on same-sex marriage is being lifted across the state that day, according to a survey conducted by the Associated Press (AP).
The uncertainty stems from the law firm Greenberg Traurig. The firm represents the state association of Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, Think Progress reports. Attorneys from the firm informed the clerks that the ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle only applies to Washington County, and went so far as to suggest that clerks who issue licenses to same-sex couples outside of that jurisdiction could be subject to criminal prosecution. Violating a statute in Florida means a person can be liable for a fine of up to $1,000 and as much as a year in jail.
State Attorney Jeff Ashton said he doesn't plan to pursue any such prosecution, but some clerks are fearful of possible retribution against their jobs by Governor Rick Scott, Think Progress reports.
Gay rights organizations Equality Florida and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have responded with their own legal memo, which urges all clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Arguing that because the law has been declared unconstitutional, the two organizations say that it can't be enforced by anyone.
In the survey, 46 of the 53 clerks who responded said they won't issue the licenses after receiving information from an association that represents the clerks. The association claims it does not believe a ruling recently made by a judge permits same-sex couples to wed extends beyond Washington County, The Raw Story reports.
The licenses are supposed to be made available to same-sex couples on Tuesday, Jan.6, following the court ruling.
"I'm not going to break the law," Paula O'Neill, the clerk for Pasco County, near St. Petersburg, told the AP. "I'm not going to issue licenses until it's legal."
The clerks association says it has asked U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to clarify his decision which ruled the state's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. Hinkle's ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed in Washington County by two men seeking to be married.
Armando Ramirez, a clerk in Osceola County, said he plans to issue the licenses, saying this is a matter of not discriminating against a minority group, Raw Story reports.
"We won't waste any time," he said, adding that his office would begin distributing the permits one minute after midnight on Jan. 6.
Disagreeing with the association's interpretation of Hinkle's ruling, gay rights organizations and are threatening legal action if couples are denied marriage permits. Last week, Equality Florida sent a memo to Florida's court clerks stating that the clerks are required to stop enforcing Florida's ban on same-sex marriage on Jan. 6.
"We are prepared to fight," spokesperson Sharon Kersten told the AP.
The Clerk of Court for Washington County, Lora Bell, filed an emergency request for clarification from Hinkle in the hopes that he will explain the scope of his decision. She was urged to do so by Greenberg Traurig. Hinkle has ordered other parties involved in the case to offer up their own responses. They are due by Monday, before he issues further clarification, Think Progress reports. Hinkle reiterated his prior order, adding emphasis to suggest that there should not be too much confusion regarding the fact that it applies to all of Florida:
The preliminary injunction binds the Secretary, the Surgeon General, and their officers, agents, servants, employees, and attorneys — and others in active concert or participation with any of them — who receive actual notice of this injunction by personal service or otherwise.
Florida officials have tried to drag out the tired argument that marriage should be reserved for couples who can procreate naturally. Hinkle offset that by noting that many opposite-sex couples marry without the ability or intention to have children.
"The undeniable truth," he wrote, "is that the Florida ban on same-sex marriage stems entirely, or almost entirely, from moral disapproval of the practice."
He added:
"The institution of marriage survived when bans on interracial marriage were struck down, and the institution will survive when bans on same-sex marriage are struck down," he concluded. "Liberty, tolerance, and respect are not zero-sum concepts. Those who enter opposite-sex marriages are harmed not at all when others, including these plaintiffs, are given the liberty to choose their own life partners and are shown the respect that comes with formal marriage. Tolerating views with which one disagrees is a hallmark of civilized society."
Think Progress reports that it's likely Hinkle will clarify the intended scope of his ruling sometime in the next week before it takes effect after Jan. 5.
Legal chaos or not, some happily await the injunction. Buddy Dyer, mayor of Orlando, plans to officiate a mass same-sex marriage on the morning of Jan. 6 — assuming the Orange County clerk is prepared to issue the licenses.
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