TAMPA — For years, same-sex couples patiently waited for the day they could marry in Florida. Now they're rushing.
Gay marriage will be allowed in the state on Tuesday, only five days after a federal judge issued a rule clarifying the issue. Long lines are expected at marriage-license counters in clerks offices around the state and in the Tampa Bay area.
Hoping to be among the first legally wedded gay couples in Hillsborough County are Shirley Winslow and Brenda Cuevas, who plan to get married Tuesday.
“We're hoping we can get down there and be the first in line,'' said Winslow, who will marry Cuevas, her partner of 25 years. “We know it will be a mad rush.''
Watching the legal push and pull that resulted in the same-sex marriage ban being thrown out was “a nail-biter,'' Winslow said. “There have been so many twists and turns.”
A month ago, when a federal judge ruled that the state's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, “we thought this may turn into a reality,” Winslow said. That day, Winslow and Cuevas took a premarital certification course so they could get a marriage license and wed the same day, if that day ever came.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi sought to block same-sex weddings through appeals. Those appeals failed, and then an attorney representing the county clerks' association wrote a memo advising Florida's clerks that issuing same-sex marriage licenses could result in criminal charges.
On New Year's Day, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a clarification of his order that cleared the way for legal same-sex weddings across the state, with court-clerk-issued licenses available as early as Tuesday.
For Winslow, Cuevas and probably a great many other gay couples, future wedding anniversaries will be celebrated on Jan. 6.
“We're ready to go,” Winslow said. “We went out and got the rings; we ordered the cake and got the bottle of champagne. We tried to get family from out of state to come, but we couldn't do it.”
If a flood of people show up, get licenses and want to get married right away, a mass-wedding ceremony will take place at noon at the Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park in downtown Tampa.
“A group wedding ceremony,” Winslow said, “We're extremely excited about that. We will be there with other couples who have waited as long as we've had.”
Hillsborough County Clerk the Circuit Court Pat Frank on Friday said she will waive the three-day waiting period for couples who pull a license but haven't taken the four-hour premarital counseling session, which is normally required.
“I'm going to waive the waiting period Tuesday through Friday for same-sex couples,” she said. “It's a hardship issue and they have already had enough hardship.”
She said her staff is getting ready for a big crowd, though she doesn't know how many people will show up Tuesday morning.
Pasco County Clerk of theCircuit Court Paula O'Neil said her offices in Dade City and New Port Richey are prepared for Tuesday. They've already printed out new marriage license applications replacing “bride” and “groom” with “spouse 1” and “spouse 2.”
“I don't make the law and I don't interpret the law,” she said. “I follow the law.”
She expects a line of applicants Tuesday morning. “We've had a lot of calls,” she said, “I anticipate that we'll have several applications.”
But O'Neil won't perform any wedding ceremonies. She said she ended the practice Oct. 1, partly because of the offices' increased workload. But her staff's opposition to performing same-sex weddings, she said, also factored into the decision.
“We have a list of clergy and notaries public that we can provide,” she said.
If couples have an officiant with them, they will be permitted to perform the ceremonies on the courthouse steps, O'Neil said. “We would have no problem with that.”
Florida Association of County Clerks and Comptrollers Executive Director Kenneth A. Kent issued a statement Friday thanking Hinkle for clarifying his position.
“Given this development,” Kent said, “we are strongly encouraging all clerks to follow this clarification order and to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples on Jan. 6.”
Though welcomed by gay couples and the court clerks around the state, the judicial clarification does not give much time to prepare for ceremonies for those who want to marry right away. Still, wedding planners and related businesses are scrambling for a piece of the emerging marriage market.
“Everybody still is in a little bit if shock,” said Nan Klater, owner of the Tampa-based Ceremonies by Nan, which officiates weddings. She said she has done a lot of same-sex commitment ceremonies in the past and she expects many of those people to come back for official — and legal — wedding ceremonies.
“A lot of people are waiting, wondering if they really are going to be able to get a license,” she said.
She's preparing for a crush of business, once it sinks in that same-sex couples can indeed legally wed. She said that as of Friday, she hasn't gotten many calls.
“But, I'm all over Facebook,” she said. “I'm ready.”
The Rev Leddy Hammock, pastor of the gay-friendly Unity Church of Clearwater has been pushing for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples for a long time.
“I've performed same-sex unions, though they weren't legal, for over 40 years,” she said.
She has not gotten a flood of requests to perform wedding ceremonies on Tuesday, she said.
“People want to get the holidays behind them and they don't know if they can trust the court ruling,” she said. She is planning a multiple wedding service for same-sex couples on Valentine's Day.
Religious and political leaders should welcome this change, she said.
“How are we going to have world peace if two people who love each other and are committed to each other are prohibited from being treated equally under the law?” Hammock said.
Over the 25 years Winslow and Cuevas have been together, they began to believe they might never be legally married in Florida.
“It did cross our minds to go to another state,” Winslow said. “But we are headstrong. We were determined that we were going to stay here in the state of Florida. We cannot get to Tuesday fast enough.”
Staff writer Laura Kinsler contributed to this report.