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A pride rainbow is shown on the back of Heather Lunsford at the 2nd annual 2014 Pride SWFL Summer Picnic event at Lakes Park Sunday afternoon in Fort Myers. / Lindsay Terry/news-press.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- No wedding bells yet, but a ruling Thursday made marriage equality activists in Southwest Florida believe the possibility of crossing that threshold was one step closer.

Inside the Pride Center of SWFL Thursday evening, families and same-sex couples called the Monroe County ruling a monumental step forward.

A judge in the Florida Keys overturned the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on Thursday after a legal challenge by gay couples said it effectively made them second-class citizens.

"It's here. It's imminent. It's just a matter of time, at most months," said Rachel Spiller, secretary for Pride-SWFL. "I think we'll ring in 2015 with marriage equality in Florida."

On the other side, Heather Brulia, 32, of Bonita Springs, said she strongly agrees and supports civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.

"They should be able to have the rights," Brulia said. "Just don't call it marriage. I believe that should be reserved for a man and a woman."

The ruling by Circuit Judge Luis M. Garcia applies only to Monroe County, which primarily consists of the Keys. It was appealed within an hour. The lawsuit contended that the same-sex marriage ban approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2008 violated the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law. The judge said licenses could not be issued until Tuesday but the appeal halted that, putting an automatic stay on the ruling.

"I think it's a very important day for all the people of Florida," said the Rev. Steve Filizzi of Saint John the Apostle Metropolitan Community Church in Fort Myers. "I want all our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to know there are ministers willing, ready and able to marry them as soon as they get their license."

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and ban supporters argued that the referendum vote should be respected and that Florida has sole authority to define marriage in the state. The Florida amendment defined marriage solely as a union between one man and one woman. Her office filed a notice of appeal to challenge the ruling.

"With many similar cases pending throughout the entire country, finality on this constitutional issue must come from the U.S. Supreme Court," a news release from the attorney general's website stated.

Ban supporter Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalition, said it was wrong for a single judge to overrule the will of a majority vote.

"The people of the state have the right to decide," Verdugo said.

Meanwhile, Lee County Clerk of Courts office reiterated via email Thursday that they would not be issuing same-sex marriage licenses at this time.

"The Lee County Clerk's Office is carefully watching legal challenges to Florida's same-sex marriage ban, though Lee County is not a party in the litigation," said Rita Miller, community relations manager in clerk administration. "Issuance of a marriage license to same-sex couples is a misdemeanor."

If it becomes legal to issue same-sex marriage licenses, Lee County will certainly move forward with issuing them, Miller said. In federal court, all recent district court decisions nationwide on same-sex marriage have stayed their rulings, pending appeal. In state court, a stay pending review is automatic upon a public official's filing of a notice of appeal, Miller said.

Along with the similar lawsuit pending in Miami-Dade, a separate lawsuit is pending in a federal court in Tallahassee seeking to force Florida to allow gay marriage and recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Arlene Goldberg, 67, of Fort Myers is a plaintiff in one of the several lawsuits against Florida's same-sex marriage ban. She received an email Thursday afternoon from ACLU attorney Daniel Tilley after the Monroe County ruling came down from the circuit court.

"There is still no ruling in our case, in the NCLR/Equality Florida case, or in the other cases pending in Florida," Tilley wrote in the email. "This case serves as good precedent to support other cases (including our case), but it otherwise does not affect our case, which is aimed at having statewide impact."

(Contributing: The Associated Press)



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Florida marriage equality activists cheer court ruling

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