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State judge strikes down Florida's gay marriage ban, stays ruling

MIAMI (Reuters) - A state judge struck down Florida’s gay marriage ban on Friday in the latest in a string of legal gay-rights victories that have nonetheless been put on hold for resolution by higher courts.

Same-sex marriage supporters Barbara Lawrence (L), 49, and Kimmy Denny, 45, chant outside the Miami-Dade County courthouse following a hearing seeking to strike down the state's de facto ban on gay marriage and order it to recognize same-sex marriage, in Miami, Florida July 2, 2014. REUTERS/Zachary Fagenson

Circuit Court Judge Sarah Zabel in Miami-Dade County said Florida’s ban violated the constitutional rights to due process and equal protection, as well as offended “basic human decency.” Florida’s attorney general quickly appealed the ruling.

But Zabel said the slew of recent verdicts showed it is “increasingly obvious” it is not permissible to deny couples the right to marry solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, and that doing so served no governmental purpose.

“It serves only to hurt, to discriminate, to deprive same-sex couples and their families of equal dignity, to label and treat them as second-class citizens, and to deem them unworthy of participation in one of the fundamental institutions of our society,” she wrote.

Since the Supreme Court ordered the federal government last year to extend benefits to legally married gay couples, every federal and state court that has taken up the issue of same-sex marriage – about 20 courts - has ruled against state bans.

Most of these rulings are on hold.

Don Price Johnston, a 44-year-old plaintiff in the Miami lawsuit, said he was thrilled with the ruling and that he did not mind that it had been stayed for now.

“It’s not like we’re going to lose. We just have to wait,” he said. “I have been waiting for more than 25 years for this right. A few more months won’t kill me.”

Last week a judge whose jurisdiction includes the Florida Keys ordered the Monroe County Clerk of Court to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

That ruling was automatically put on hold after Florida’s attorney general, Pam Bondi, a Republican, said she planned to appeal it and that the final decision on the issue must come from the U.S. Supreme Court.

While that ruling applied to only one county, it was the first decision in several court cases across the state challenging the same-sex marriage ban, which was approved by Florida voters in 2008.

Republican Governor Rick Scott has adopted a more neutral position than Bondi, saying that while he supports traditional marriage consistent with the 2008 amendment, he does not believe anyone should be discriminated against for any reason.

Another plaintiff in the Miami lawsuit, Todd Delmay, 42, said that while it would be great to see same-sex marriage legally permitted in Monroe County and Miami-Dade, supporters had more far-reaching ambitions.

“We really want marriage equality for the entire state, and to do this we need to get it in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court,” Delmay said.

Reporting by Zachary Fagenson; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Sandra Maler and Eric Beech