Midnight brings wedding bells as marriage equality arrives in Florida

gay marriage

Aaron Huntsman, left, and William Lee Jones kiss after being declared legally married early Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, on the steps of the Monroe County Courthouse. The couple obtained the first same-sex marriage license issued in the Florida Keys. Huntsman and Jones helped to pave the way for marriage equality in Florida with a lawsuit protesting the state's 2008 ban on same-sex marriage. Courtesy Fla-keys.com

 Aaron Huntsman, left, and William Lee Jones kiss after being declared legally married early Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, on the steps of the Monroe County Courthouse. The couple obtained the first same-sex marriage license issued in the Florida Keys. Huntsman and Jones helped to pave the way for marriage equality in Florida with a lawsuit protesting the state's 2008 ban on same-sex marriage.Courtesy Fla-keys.com

Aaron Huntsman, left, and William Lee Jones kiss after being declared legally married early Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, on the steps of the Monroe County Courthouse. The couple obtained the first same-sex marriage license issued in the Florida Keys. Huntsman and Jones helped to pave the way for marriage equality in Florida with a lawsuit protesting the state’s 2008 ban on same-sex marriage.

Updated: 9:00 a.m. EST

Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage ended statewide at the stroke of midnight Monday, and court clerks in some counties wasted no time, issuing marriage licenses and performing weddings for same-sex couples in the early morning hours.

But they were beaten to the punch by a Miami judge who found no need to wait until the statewide ban expired. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel presided over Florida’s first legally recognized same-sex marriages Monday afternoon.

Still, most counties held off on official ceremonies until early Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle’s ruling that Florida’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional took effect in all 67 counties.

“It’s been a long time coming. We’re just so excited and so happy,” said Osceola County Commissioner Cheryl Grieb moments after she married Patti Daugherty, her partner of 22 years, at a courthouse in Kissimmee, just south of Orlando.

In matching white pants and white embroidered shirts, the couple stood under a canopy of lace and ribbons as County Clerk of Court Armando Ramirez officiated and U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., served as a witness. Supporters counted down to midnight, with a clock ticking away at the front of the room.

Florida – the third-most populous state, with 19.9 million people – becomes the 36th state where gay marriage is legal. Seventy percent of Americans now live in states where same-sex couples can legally wed.

In several of the Deep South states surrounding Florida, same-sex marriage bans remain in place. That puts Florida – a state much changed since the 1970s, when former beauty pageant queen and orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant started her national campaign against gay rights in the 1970s – in place to potentially serve as a mecca for gay couples who could travel there for weddings.

But while the end of the ban was met with cheers or even shrugs from Florida’s more liberal enclaves, political and cultural divisions remained in the battleground state, especially farther north, where more conservative Floridians live.

In Jacksonville, Duval County Court Clerk Ronnie Fussell shut down the courthouse chapel, saying no marriage ceremonies – gay or straight – would be allowed there. At least two other counties in northeast Florida did the same.

“The day is going to come very soon where America is going to wake up and say, ‘Whoa! Wait a second! I wanted two guys to live together. I didn’t want the fundamental transformation of society,'” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy council. He led the petition drive to put the gay marriage ban on the ballot back in 2008.

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