Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision striking a portion of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act leaves many uncertainties for same-sex couples in Florida, where marriage is constitutionally defined as between one man and one woman.
But one thing is certain: Florida Gov. Rick Scott made clear Wednesday that he intends to enforce the same-sex marriage ban that voters approved in 2008.
“I’ll uphold the law of the land, and that’s the law of our state,” he told reporters in Tallahassee, saying Florida is a “traditional marriage state.”
Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, one of Florida’s first openly gay state representatives, said the court ruling leaves Florida gay families in limbo.
“What can be expected may be a series of court challenges,’’ he said. “While the winds are in the sails of gay and lesbian families here, it’s still going to be a patchwork and a space of limbo until we figure out exactly what happens in states like Florida.”
Legal experts say gay couples in Florida should not assume they will be granted the same benefits, rights and protections enjoyed by legal spouses in other states.
“People living in states like Florida should proceed with caution in marrying because they will surprised to learn they will not get all the federal benefits that heterosexual married couples get or people living in equality states,” said Miami Beach family attorney Elizabeth Schwartz said. “Eligibility for all these federal benefits will have to be determined on a benefit by benefit, case by case basis.”
The benefits are many, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s biggest gay-rights group, which notes that marriage affords 1,138 benefits, rights and protections to legal spouses.
The Supreme Court case decided Wednesday involved Edith Windsor, an 83-year-old New Yorker who got hit with $363,053 in inheritance taxes after her wife, Thea Spyer, died in 2009. The high court ruled Windsor was not liable for the tax bill, telling the U.S. government it must recognize legal marriages of same-sex couples.
That directive may not apply to same-sex couples in Florida, where in 2008 just under 62 percent of voters passed Amendment 2, which banned gay marriage and civil unions.
“Historically, the IRS has looked at where you live and whether your marriage is valid where you live,” said Schwartz, who is a nationally recognized expert in gay family law and estate planning.
“That’s what’s sad about this case,” Schwartz said. “It’s creating two tiers of relationships where there are couples who are able to enjoy benefits on a state and federal level, and the rest of us who are not able to enjoy benefits on a state or federal level.”
In Florida, for example, the Internal Revenue Service may not recognize same-sex spouses legally married in places like New York or Massachusetts. Yet, those petitioning federal immigration authorities for legal U.S. residency will likely get to stay in the country.
Consider Daniel Zavala, a Mexican national and his husband, Yohaneld Ruiz, of Coral Gables. The Supreme Court’s decision means that Daniel Zavala will likely get his green card and won’t be separated from Ruiz.
“I’m just super happy. It’s just amazing. I want to share with everybody and celebrate. We knew it was the logical thing to happen. We were really reserved before, but not now,” said Zavala, who last year married Ruiz in Washington, D.C., where gay marriage became legal in 2010.