Meet the other couple at the center of Florida’s same-sex marriage challenge

Ozzie Russ, left and his partner Steve Schlarie at the ranch in Chipley, Fla. Melissa Nelson-Gabriel, AP

Ozzie Russ, left and his partner Steve Schlarie at the ranch in Chipley, Fla.Melissa Nelson-Gabriel, AP

Ozzie Russ, left and his partner Steve Schlarie at the ranch in Chipley, Fla.

CHIPLEY, Fla. — Steve Schlariet and Ozzie Russ say they never sought the spotlight of social activism, the spotlight found them. The rural Florida Panhandle couple could become one of the first gay men granted a license to marry in the state when a judge’s order takes effect Tuesday.

Together nearly 20 years and united during a commitment ceremony in Fort Lauderdale in 2001, the men live a quiet life raising horses and dogs on their central Panhandle ranch. When friends approached them about joining a lawsuit challenging the state’s gay marriage ban, Schlariet, 66, and Russ, 48, were a bit reluctant.

The suit, Brenner v. Scott, had already been filed just weeks earlier by Tallahassee couple Jim Brenner and Chuck Jones. Brenner and Jones were married in Canada in 2009, and the suit originally sought to have out-of-state same-sex marriages recognized by the state.

Chuck Jones (left) and Jim Brenner.Family photo

Jim Brenner (right) and Chuck Jones.

[ A profile of Jim Brenner and Chuck Jones is here. ]

Russ jokes about how Schlariet briefly balked at walking into the county clerk’s office and requesting a marriage license back in March.

The duo gathered their courage, entered the small office and asked to be married. They were told Washington County could not issue them a marriage license because Florida does not allow same-sex marriages. That rejection became the basis for joining the lawsuit on March 18, 2014, expanding the challenge to include the right to marry for unmarried, same-sex couples.

“We don’t think of ourselves as activists, but we didn’t want to look back and feel that we could have a made a difference and instead copped out,” Schlariet said. “Back when we filed this lawsuit, we didn’t think it would affect millions of people, but it feels good to know that that is what has happened.”

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U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle used the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Schlariet and Russ and Brenner and Jones, as the basis for his Aug. 21 ruling that the state’s same-sex marriage ban — overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2008 — is unconstitutional. (A second federal challenge, Grimsley v. Scott, was also filed in March 2014 by the ACLU, which was consolidated by the court with Brenner v. Scott.)

Hinkle stayed his ruling until Tuesday.

County clerks throughout the state are expected to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses when the stay expires after Hinkle clarified his ruling on New Year’s Day. Attorneys representing an association of county clerks had claimed the ruling only applies to the specific couples mentioned in the lawsuit, but Hinkle said the ruling applies to all 67 Florida counties.

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