KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — 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," Osceola County Commissioner Cheryl Grieb said 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, gay 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. At least two other northeast Florida counties 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.
There were no such obstacles in Key West, at Florida's southern tip. Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones received the Keys' first marriage license issued to a same-sex couple early Tuesday. They exchanged nuptials in matching black tuxedos with blue vests, in front of several hundred people on the Monroe County Courthouse steps.
After their vows, Jones removed a large silver-toned bracelet that encircled his left wrist. He called it "my shackle of inequality."
"I'm elated. Overjoyed that I am finally legally recognized with the man I have loved for 12 years now," Jones said.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is still pursuing appeals, at both state and federal levels. She wants to uphold the ban voters approved in 2008.
Tellingly, though, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and then the U.S. Supreme Court refused Bondi's request to extend an order blocking same-sex marriages beyond Monday. That essentially gave the green light to weddings.
On Friday, U.S. Supreme Court justices will decide in private whether to rule on the merits of gay marriage during their current term.
Bondi shares her position with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who's considering a Republican run for president: that marriage should be defined by each state.
But even Bush tried to find a middle ground Monday. In a statement, he urged people to "show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue — including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty."
The remaining political divides hardly bothered the couples celebrating in much of Florida on Monday and Tuesday. Churches held mass weddings for same-sex couples, as did several cities and counties at courthouses or City Halls.
More than 40 couples married Tuesday morning on the red-carpet-draped steps outside Orlando's City Hall. A four-tiered wedding cake featured a rainbow-colored bottom, and Orlando's gay chorus sang "Over the Rainbow." Many couples were accompanied by their young children.
"We wanted to marry on this historic day," said Brandon Walker-Hodge, who held 5-week-old daughter Karaleigh Ruth as he exchanged vows with Josh Walker-Hodge. "And really it's all about her at this point and everything that comes with the legality of marriage."
In Palm Beach County, celebrity financial adviser Suze Orman showed up at a mass courthouse wedding to support two friends. Orman, who married wife Kathy Travis a decade ago in South Africa, said she's happy same-sex couples are finally being recognized legally in Florida, where she lives part time.
"This is an investment in validity," Orman said.