TAMPA - While Florida is one of 13 states with sodomy laws still on the books, such cases are rarely - if ever - prosecuted in the state's courts.
So, can the U.S. Supreme Court's 6-3 decision Thursday invalidating those laws be seen as mostly an academic exercise, lacking real-world implications for the state?
Not at all, say gay rights activists and legal experts. They say the ruling is likely to have profound consequences on symbolic, political and legal levels.
"A statement has been made of unbelievable proportions in the culture-war struggle," said Bob Kunst, a Miami Beach-based gay rights activist. "They have effectively said, "Government cannot legislate morals.' "
Matthew Coles, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who has been fighting Florida's ban on gay adoption, said the ruling undercuts a key justification for the ban - a desire to express disapproval of homosexuality.
"The decision says you can't treat gay people differently just because you disapprove of their relationship," Coles said.
The Florida legislature passed the ban on gay adoption in 1977, amid an antigay crusade spearheaded by singer Anita Bryant. The blanket ban is unique in the nation.
In a case now before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, four gay men who want to adopt children they are raising have challenged the constitutionality of the ban. Might the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling lead to the law being overturned?
"It certainly makes it more likely," said Coles. He has argued before the federal appeals court that the ban hurts thousands of foster children awaiting adoption.
While Florida law makes criminal both gay and heterosexual sodomy under a statute that bans "unnatural and lascivious acts," Coles said the law hasn't been used to prosecute private consensual conduct in at least 30 years.
Still, he said, the sodomy law has undergirded other forms of discrimination, such as child-custody cases in which a parent's homosexuality becomes a justification for denying visitation.
"The problem is, as in many states, it sits on the books and you never know when it will be used as a weapon," said Nadine Smith, head of the gay and lesbian advocacy group Equality Florida. "It has been a very potent propaganda tool."
When gay activists champion equal-rights ordinances across the state, she said, "Without fail, the opposition always says, "What you're trying to do is get protections for illegal sex acts.' "
Karen Doering, a Tampa attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called the court's decision "one of the most significant ever on gay rights," but added it will take several years to gauge its full impact. What effect the ruling may have on gay marriage, for example, remains unclear.
But even dissenting Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was aware of the potential reach of the ruling, bemoaning "the end of all morals legislation."
Asked about sodomy laws Thursday, Gov. Jeb Bush replied with a chuckle: "I just don't know what the (Texas) law is and I'm not sure I want it described to me. . . . I need more information before I can give an opinion."
- Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Christopher Goffard can be reached at 813-226-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org