FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
TALLAHASSEE - Six same-sex couples filed a challenge before the Florida Supreme Court today charging that the anti-gay voter initiative threatening protections for the families of same-sex couples violates the Florida Constitution.
The measure being proposed for the 2006 ballot would leave tens of thousands of families legally vulnerable. It not only blocks recognition of marriage, it permanently blocks civil union protections and threatens existing domestic partnership protections across the state.
""After building a life together for over 42 years, it's inconceivable to me that some people in our state would want to amend our constitution in a way that threatens all protections for the families of same-sex couples,"" said Richard Rogers of Fort Lauderdale, who appeared with his partner Bill Mullins at a press conference in Tampa to announce the filing of the challenge. ""Bill and I were the first couple in line to register as domestic partners in Broward County and thought we had put an end to the days when we had to worry about whether we would be able to visit each other in the hospital or make emergency medical decisions for each other. But if this amendment were to pass, we'd have to face those worries all over again as senior citizens. That's not something anyone should have to go through.""
Over the years they were together, Rogers put his career on the back burner to be with Mullins, who worked in the railroad industry and was frequently transferred. As a result, Rogers gets minimal Social Security payments. The couple relies primarily on Mullins's railroad retirement. Although they have been a couple for 42 years, Rogers is not entitled to Mullins's retirement like a surviving spouse would be and would face severe economic hardship if Mullins were to die before him.
Jon Durre, who is fighting advanced prostate cancer, appeared with his partner of 11 years, Robert Sullivan, at a simultaneous press conference in Tallahassee. ""Fighting cancer has been a tremendous strain on us and our family,"" said Durre. ""Weekly chemo treatment makes me too weak and sick to work. My partner's employer doesn't offer domestic partner coverage, and nearly all of the money I receive from disability goes to paying for my insurance and healthcare costs. When I go to the hospital we have to worry that Robert isn't going to be allowed to visit me or won't be allowed to make medical decisions on my behalf. And we also worry what will happen if I'm not able to kick this disease. Although I've made my wishes clear to my family, there's no guarantee Robert won't be ignored by the funeral director. It's just not fair to use our constitution to make us legal strangers and make it even more difficult for couples like us during difficult times.""
The financial hardship caused by Durre's illness has affected his extended family as well. The couple is no longer able to provide financial support to Durre's elderly parents who had been living with the couple but were forced to move out when the couple had to move into a smaller home. As a result, Durre's 76-year-old father, a retired minister with no pension, has been forced to take a job at K-Mart to make ends meet.
The challenge came about through the Fairness for All Families Campaign, which has formed to oppose efforts to ban legal protections for same-sex couples and their families. "Fairness for All Families is committed to fighting on all fronts - the courts and the voting booth - to ensure that the Florida Constitution is not amended to forever treat same-sex couples as legal strangers," said Nadine Smith, chair of the Fairness for All Families campaign. "We believe that when Florida voters understand the real harm that failing to protect our families inflicts, they will reject this kind of injustice and support fairness and equality under the law."
The brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Equality Florida, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights argues that it is unconstitutional to put the initiative to a vote because it violates the single-subject rule of the Florida constitution. The initiative forces voters to decide both whether they want to ban same-sex couples from marriage and whether they want to ban same-sex couples from other types of legal recognition for their relationships. While recent polls from the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald and the Tampa Tribune/WFLA indicate that the majority of Floridians are opposed to marriage for same-sex couples, the majority also favors civil unions or other legal protection for same-sex couples. Allowing the proposed initiative to go forward would put voters in the unfair position of making a choice about two separate issues on which there is clearly a large disagreement among the voters. That, the Florida constitution says, is unconstitutional.
""Those behind this initiative are trying to hoodwink the people into believing this is only about marriage,"" said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. ""The truth is it goes much further than that. It blocks same-sex couples from civil unions and threatens domestic partner registries. We have seen how they have attempted to use this language in other states to ban domestic partner health and other employee benefits for gay workers and their children.""
Karen Doering, Regional Counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights added, ""As the stories of these couples demonstrate so well, same-sex couples make commitments, build families, and take care of each other just like straight couples. We shouldn't disgrace our constitution to forever deny the many lesbian and gay couples in Florida from the legal protections that help keep families afloat during difficult times.""
Other couples who appear in the challenge as interested parties include:
- Teresa Ardines and Melissa Bruck, who have been together for ten years, are the proud mothers of twin boys. After 23 years on the job, Ardines retired from the Miami Police Department in order to be able to look after her sons. But when the economy soured after 9/11, Bruck lost her job, forcing Ardines to take another position at roughly half the pay she was making on the police force. Although Ardines has always been a part of the twins' lives, the state treats her as legal stranger to her children because Bruck gave birth to them. Since the state doesn't provide domestic partner benefits, Bruck and the boys are forced to rely on Medicaid for health insurance.
- Rich Nolan and Bob Pingpank of West Palm Beach recently celebrated their 50th anniversary together. Nolan, a retired Episcopal priest, and Pingpank, a retired math teacher, met at a picnic their freshman year at Trinity College in Connecticut. West Palm Beach has a domestic partner registry; they are registered and rely on the protections it affords to see them through their final years. Nolan has already been hospitalized several times - for a heart attack and a severe gall stone attack. If the initiative is allowed to go forward, they would again have to worry about visiting each other in the hospital, their ability to make emergency medical decisions for each other as well as respecting their wishes with regard to burial arrangements.
- Dee Graham and Signa Quandt of St. Petersburg have been together for 28 years and have two daughters and a son. Quandt, a former pro golfer, suffers from a life-threatening immune deficiency disease which has made her severely disabled. Graham was able to provide domestic partner insurance coverage for Quandt, but eventually the out-of-pocket expenses got to be too high and Quandt had to go on Medicaid in order to pay for her medications which cost $5,500 per month. St. Petersburg doesn't have a domestic partner registry, so the couple worries about hospital visitation and medical decisionmaking.
- Juan Talavera and Jeff Ronci have been together for five years. Talavera is a case manager in the mental health department at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Ronci is the Director of Marketing and public relations for Dade County Public Schools. Talavera and Ronci both have good pension plans through their work, but because the plans only provide survivor benefits to spouses, they will not be able to transfer their pensions to each other.
A copy of the brief filed today as well as additional biographical information on the couples involved is available at www.aclu.org/caseprofiles, www.aclufl.org, www.equalityflorida.org, and www.nclrights.org.