Same-sex couples in Florida's Miami-Dade County got a welcome surprise Monday when a judge lifted a stay that allowed same-sex weddings to begin there a day earlier than expected.
Florida Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel lifted a stay she had placed on a July ruling that struck down the state's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. The move came hours before a stay in a separate federal ruling is expected to expire at midnight, allowing same-sex couples throughout the rest of the state to wed.
Zabel's courtroom erupted in joyful tears and cheers Monday morning as the judge made her announcement, said Catherina Pareto, 42, who was one of the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the 2008 law and, along with longtime partner Karla Arguello, became one of the first two couples to be married Monday.
"There was not a dry eye in the courtroom," Pareto said. "It was a relief. It was a weight lifted off my shoulders."
Shortly after the ruling, dozens of couples rushed across the street to the county clerk's office to obtain their licenses, including Pareto and Arguello, who both had worn off-white dresses just in case.
County officials did not have new license applications, so Pareto filled her name in under "groom," and Arguello listed herself as "bride."
Once they had the piece of paper in hand, they ran back across the street, where they were married by Zabel in her chambers, along with another plaintiff couple.
The room was filled with reporters and well-wishers, Pareto said, but both of their parents were also there. A friend managed to chase down some red roses just before the impromptu ceremony began.
"It was just surreal," Pareto told The Times on Monday afternoon. "To have the privilege of being the first ones in the state to be married, and by the same judge that heard our case.... There was so much history leading up to that one moment."
Todd and Jeff Delmay, two other plaintiffs in the suit, were also married by Zabel on Monday. They say they have been preparing for this day for nearly 12 years. That's how long they've worn wedding rings on their right hands -- reserving their left ring fingers for the day they could marry.
On Monday, the couple switched their rings to their left hands. "It's kind of a minor shift, but what it signifies for us is so much more," said Todd Delmay, 43. He described the moment as "magical," and said he and Jeff planned to pick up their 4-year-old son early from school to share the news. "Our relationship is now valued and respected in the eyes of the law as any other family."
According to officials with the Miami-Dade County Clerk's Office, 26 same-sex couples received marriage licenses by 3 p.m. Monday. Three couples have been married at the courthouse, officials said.
Loud cheers went up as soon as the couples had their licenses in hand, said Sharon Kersten, a spokeswoman for Equality Florida, which sued to challenge the ban in Miami-Dade County.
Another couple that received licenses Monday, Vanessa and Melanie Alenier, were also plaintiffs in the suit.
"Having spent so much time with these couples through the past year and seeing how much they had to go through, it's a very emotionally charged moment," Kersten said. "It's just filled with joy."
In her 36-page ruling July 25, Zabel found the state ban, passed in 2008, was unconstitutional and violated the equal protection clause.
She compared the plight of same-sex couples to the struggle of other minorities to gain equal protections under the law.
"Notably absent from this protracted march towards social justice was any progress for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community until quite recently," Zabel wrote in the ruling. "However, as evidenced by the avalanche of court decisions unanimously favoring marriage equality, the dam that was denying justice on this front has been broken."
The decision to lift her stay came just 10 hours before same-sex marriages are expected to begin throughout the rest of the Sunshine State. A stay of a federal order from U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, which also struck down the ban on the grounds that it violated the constitution's equal protection clause, is set to expire at midnight, the Associated Press reported.
The Florida attorney general's office has appealed multiple rulings striking down the state ban and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to extend the stay on Hinkle's ruling to stop same-sex marriages from beginning there.
The Supreme Court denied that request last month.
Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi did not say whether she would drop an appeal pending in the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, though her office said in a statement last week that it would not stand in the way of clerks issuing licenses.
In a statement Monday, spokesman Whitney Ray said, "The judge has ruled, and we wish these couples the best."
In a New Year's Day ruling clarifying his order, Hinkle said county clerks in all of Florida's 67 counties were obligated to follow his ruling. Though clerks will be required to issue same-sex marriage licenses once Hinkle's ruling takes effect, some have said they will stop performing marriages altogether, the Associated Press reported.
It is now legal for same-sex couples to marry in more than 30 states and the District of Columbia.