Florida: All Tampa Bay Area Clerks Will Deny Gay Couples Marriage Licenses

Pinellas Clerk of Court Ken Burke expects all four Tampa Bay-area county clerks to turn away same-sex marriage license applicants on Jan. 6.

“We’re sympathetic but we have to follow what we know is the direction of the court, based on advice from our legal counsel,” Burke told the Tampa Bay Times Monday, three days after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex couples to marry across the state.

According to Tampa Bay Times:

Gay-rights groups on Monday vowed to take legal action against Florida clerks who deny licenses to couples on Jan. 6. That’s the day after a federal judge’s stay on a ruling striking down the ban on gay marriage expires.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Friday to turn down Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s request to extend the stay hasn’t changed the opinion of a law firm that advises court clerks statewide.

“The denial of a stay is not a ruling on the merits of the marriage-equality issue,” Hilarie Bass, co-president for the law firm Greenberg Traurig, said in a statement. “Florida law continues to prohibit a Clerk from issuing a marriage license to a same-gender couple and provides criminal sanctions for doing so.”

In August, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle found that Florida’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Hinkle’s ruling came amid appeals in similar cases from other parts of the country, and he placed a stay on his decision. That stay will expire at the end of the day Jan. 5.

Greenberg Traurig attorneys warned clerks in a memo last week that Hinkle’s ruling only applies to the clerk in the rural Panhandle’s Washington County, where one of the gay couples involved in the challenge to the ban lives. The memo advised clerks not to issue marriage licenses “until a binding order is issued by a court of proper jurisdiction,” and warned that clerks could be subject to criminal prosecution if they allow gay couples to wed.

On Monday, the firm recommended that Washington County Clerk Lora Bell consider filing a motion for an emergency hearing “seeking clarification from Judge Hinkle regarding the specific parties intended to be bound by his order,” Bass said in the statement.

Equality Florida, a prominent group supporting legalization of same-sex marriage, issued a news release Monday that said clerks “have a legal obligation to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — or risk expensive litigation, including liability for damages and attorney fees.”

“Clerks can stand in the doorway and try to block equality or they can welcome gay couples who have waited for decades for this moment,” Nadine Smith, chief executive officer of Equality Florida, said in a press release. “We expect every clerk to uphold their oath and protect the constitutional rights of gay couples seeking marriage licenses. No legal firm’s memo overrides their clear legal obligation.”