KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's ban on same-sex marriage ended statewide at the stroke of midnight Monday, and court clerks in some Florida counties wasted no time, issuing marriage licenses and performing weddings for same-sex couples overnight.
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 after midnight 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. Florida's attorney general, Pam Bondi, is still pursuing state and federal appeals seeking to uphold the ban voters approved in 2008, but her effort to block these weddings until the courts finally rule was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court.
And now that same-sex marriage is a reality in Florida, Bondi's spokeswoman told The Associated Press "the judge has ruled, and we wish these couples the best."
The addition of Florida's 19.9 million people means 70 percent of Americans now live in the 36 states where gay marriage is legal.
"It's been a long time coming. We're just so excited and so happy," said Osceola County Commissioner Cheryl Grieb moments after she married Patti Daugherty, her partner of 22 years, at the Osceola County Courthouse in Kissimmee, just south of Orlando. Dressed 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. A countdown clock was placed in the front of the room, and supporters counted down to midnight 10 seconds before the clock struck 12.
"I'm hyped up at the moment," said Grieb, whose marriage was the first in Osceola County and was followed by 27 others in the early morning hours.
Outside the courthouse, about 20 protesters held signs reading "God says male and female should be married" and "Sodom and Gomorrah," but same-sex marriage supporters ignored them.
In Key West, at the southern tip of Florida, Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, exchanged nuptials early Tuesday dressed in matching black tuxedos with blue vests, shortly after getting the first marriage license issued to a same-sex couple in the Florida Keys. Several hundred people attended the wedding staged on the steps of the Monroe County Courthouse.
During vows, Huntsman and Jones exchanged handmade silver rings, embraced and kissed. Afterward, Jones removed a large silver-toned bracelet that completely 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," said Jones, whose marriage was followed by nine others in Monroe County overnight.
In Palm Beach County, celebrity financial adviser Suze Orman showed up at a mass wedding of 100 couples at a Delray Beach courthouse to support two friends getting married. Orman, who married her wife, Kathy Travis, a decade ago in South Africa, said she was happy same-sex couples were finally being recognized legally in Florida, where she lives part of the time.
"This is an investment in validity," Orman said.
Broward Clerk Howard Forman also planned to officiate a mass wedding overnight at his county courthouse, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer planned to do the same at city hall later in the morning. Churches throughout the state were holding mass weddings for same-sex couples on Tuesday.
On Monday, gay and lesbian couples in Miami got a head-start when Zabel said she saw no reason why same-sex couples couldn't immediately get their marriage licenses.
Then, she married two couples, Karla Arguello and Cathy Pareto and Todd and Jeff Delmay, in her chambers, packed with supporters and news media for the event.
"Finally, Florida recognizes us as a couple," Pareto said. "It's just — I don't know, sweet justice."
But while the news was largely met with cheers or even shrugs from Florida's more liberal enclaves, signs of opposition were evident 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 there. At least two other counties in northeast Florida 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.
Republican Jeb Bush, who opposed gay marriage while serving as Florida's governor and who now may seek the presidency, sought 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."
Associated Press staffers J. Pat Carter in Delray Beach, Curt Anderson in Miami, Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Jason Dearen in Gainesville, Matt Sedensky in West Palm Beach and Melissa Nelson-Gabriel in Pensacola contributed to this report.