By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - A county judge in Florida struck down on Thursday the state's gay marriage ban, the latest in a string of court rulings across the United States voiding state laws that restrict the right of same-sex couples to marry.
Circuit Judge Luis Garcia, whose jurisdiction includes the Florida Keys, ordered the Monroe County Clerk of Court to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples next Tuesday.
While the ruling applies to only one Florida county, it marks the first decision in several court cases across the state challenging a same-sex marriage ban approved by Florida voters in 2008.
Garcia ruled in favor of two male bartenders living in Key West seeking the right to marry, saying Florida's gay marriage ban violated their rights to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution. Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, both 43, told Reuters they cried after lawyers texted them with the news.
"It is a life-changing event," said Huntsman, who had been on the phone seeking health insurance that he may now qualify for through marriage. "We're taking it one minute at a time."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a Republican, is appealing the decision, a spokeswoman said, stating that the final decision on the issue must come from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Republican Governor Rick Scott adopted a more neutral position. "Governor Scott supports traditional marriage, consistent with the amendment approved by Florida voters in 2008, but does not believe that anyone should be discriminated against for any reason," John Tupps, the governor's press secretary, told Reuters.
Under Florida law, a stay automatically goes into effect when a public official appeals an adverse decision, according to Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, one of the attorneys representing gay couples in a Miami lawsuit.
"The plaintiffs can appeal to the circuit judge and ask him to lift the stay," Minter added.
Florida is the 18th U.S. state where courts have ruled against prohibitions on same-sex marriage since last year's Supreme Court ruling striking down parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which had defined marriage as between one man and one woman, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group.
In his ruling, Garcia acknowledged that a majority of Florida voters had opposed same-sex marriage.
"But it is our country's proud history to protect the rights of the individual, the rights of the unpopular and the rights of the powerless, even at the cost of offending the majority," Garcia wrote.
John Stemberger, who heads a conservative group that pushed for the 2008 same-sex marriage ban, said, "The judge in this decision has disrespected and in essence disenfranchised just under 5 million voters who ... defined this issue in our state constitution."
Garcia's ruling triggered muted celebrations statewide as gay couples sensed the justice system was moving in their direction.
"Imagine the day we could have the rights everybody else does. I never thought it would happen, and it's about time," said Luiz Felipe Cavalcanti, 48, a real estate broker who joined a gathering at the Miami Beach Gay and Lesbian Visitors Center.
(Writing by Letitia Stein; Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins, Bill Cotterell and Barbara Liston; Editing by David Adams and Will Dunham)