Squelch gay marriage ban proposal, court urged

An effort to amend the state Constitution doesn't pass legal muster, foes say in a high court filing.

Published September 22, 2005

TAMPA - Six same-sex couples, a government employees union, the Florida ACLU and a gay rights group filed a brief with the Florida Supreme Court Wednesday challenging a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

The proposed amendment would define marriage as a union between "only one man and one woman" and provide that no other kind of marriage or legal union be considered equivalent.

Last month, the political committee Florida4Marriage.org collected enough signatures to get the ballot initiative reviewed by the court for constitutionality.

The 45-page legal brief filed Wednesday argues that the proposed Florida Marriage Protection Amendment violates a state rule that such petitions deal with a single subject. Authors of the brief also said the proposed amendment misleads voters.

"Polls show that a majority of people in Florida are for some form of civil union," said Rebecca Harrison Steele, director of the ACLU West Central Florida office in Tampa.

The Florida ACLU and Equality Florida announced the filing of the brief in downtown Tampa. They are listed as interested parties, along with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the six couples: Richard Nolan and Robert Pingpank; Robert Sullivan and Jon Durre; Dee Graham and Signa Quandt; Richard Rogers and Bill Mullins; Teresa Ardines and Melissa Bruck; and Juan Talavera and Jeffrey Ronci.

Florida4Marriage.org has until Feb. 1 to gather 611,009 signatures to qualify for the November 2006 ballot. As of Wednesday, the group had 82,407 signatures, said John Stemberger, chairman of Florida4Marriage.org and president of the Florida Family Policy Council.

"It's crystal clear from reading it that it deals with one issue," Stemberger said of Florida4Marriage.org's petition.

Stemberger said he expects to see an "exponential increase" in the number of collected signatures after this weekend. Florida4Marriage.org has declared "Marriage Protection Sunday" this weekend. It asked pastors, priests and rabbis to preach on protecting marriage as a union between one man and one woman and to solicit signatures for the petition.

"We're not against gays. We're for marriage," said Stemberger.

He said attorneys for Florida4Marriage.org also planned to file a brief with the state Supreme Court by late Wednesday.

Steele said the proposed ban jeopardizes domestic benefits currently in place.

Stemberger took issue with that.

"It doesn't affect benefits in public or private sectors," Stemberger said. "It would not affect domestic registries. What it would prohibit is any kind of union that would mimic marriage."

Steele cited an Ohio case where a man used a similar amendment - which recognized only marriages between a man and a woman - as a defense against a domestic violence charge. The Ohio amendment says the state "shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships or unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage."

The man argued that the law did not protect his live-in girlfriend, whom he had beaten. A judge threw out his argument because the incident occurred before the amendment was in place.

In Tampa Wednesday, Lealman residents Quandt, 55, and Graham, 53, spoke to reporters along with their two daughters and grandson. The women, together for 28 years, also have a son.

Quandt, a former professional golfer, suffers from chronic disease. She said she keeps legal documents on her at all times that designate Graham as her medical guardian. When Quandt was hospitalized last year, doctors refused to acknowledge Graham or Quandt's do-not-resuscitate order until Quandt's adopted daughter arrived to make the final call, Quandt said.

"The people of Florida need to know what it is that they're voting on," Quandt said. "It's my wish if nothing else comes in my lifetime, that this is taken care of. This is my last wish, that the hate is stopped. That rights are granted."