LAKELAND, Fla. (CN) – A Florida lesbian cannot use the Sunshine State’s law banning gay marriage to prevent her wife from divorcing her, an appeals court ruled.
“If the policy is to prevent, eliminate, discourage, or otherwise preclude same-sex marriage in Florida, permitting the courts to dissolve same-sex marriages that have been previously entered into in other states would arguably further that policy by reducing the number of same-sex married couples in Florida,” the April 24 opinion by Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals states.
Danielle and Krista Brandon-Thomas were married in Massachusetts in 2012, but their relationship “soured” upon their move to Florida, and Danielle filed for divorce a year later, according to the ruling.
Krista argued that, because Florida does not recognize same-sex marriages, the Lee County trial court had no jurisdiction to dissolve her marriage.
The woman found an unlikely ally in the form of Attorney General Pam Bondi – a persistent opponent of gay marriage – who filed as an intervenor in Krista’s case.
Though the trial court sided with Krista, the Second District unanimously reversed that decision last week.
Krista’s attorney conceded in an interview that the ruling may be constitutionally well-grounded but that his client “remains disappointed about the impact [it] will have on her and her family.”
Though Krista cited anti-gay-marriage statutes to block the divorce, she was simply looking to protect her child custody rights, attorney Michael Chionopoulos said.
Krista was “acting in the best interest of her child,” he added.
The Second District’s ruling further establishes Florida courts’ waxing support of equal marriage rights.
Florida saw its ban on gay marriage essentially lifted when a temporary stay in the crucial Brenner v. Scott decision expired in January, and court clerks have since begun carrying out marriages for homosexual couples en masse across the state.
The matter of granting divorces for existing out-of-state gay marriages represented a separate legal question, however, the Second District panel found.
At issue was the application of the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution, which requires a state to acknowledge judicial proceedings and legal pronouncements – in this case, a marriage – from other states.
As she has done in other cases involving recognition of out-of-state gay marriages, Bondi invoked a public-policy exception that allows deviation from the full faith and credit clause in circumstances under which compliance would undermine a state’s public policy.
According to the ruling, both Krista and the attorney general “take the position that Florida need not afford full faith and credit to legal out-of-state same-sex marriages because they violate Florida’s public policy.”
But the Second District rejected the argument, adding that neither Krista nor the Attorney General “specifically addressed what legitimate purpose might be the basis for precluding a Florida court from exercising jurisdiction to dissolve a same-sex marriage legally entered into outside of Florida.”
In reversing the trial court’s order, the Second District stressed that Krista and Danielle were fighting for custody of a child. Krista asserts that, since she gave birth to the child, Danielle lacks standing to request shared parental responsibility or child support, according to court documents.
For the Second District, a legal dissolution of the marriage is critical.
“The practical impact of the trial court’s order is that a validly married couple, albeit of the same sex, cannot access a Florida court to undo their marriage,” the unsigned opinion states. “The couple’s financial affairs remain intertwined, and their joint assets, if any, are not easily transferred. The trial court’s order impedes the flow of assets and capital. Particularly significant, the welfare and stability of a child parented by this couple remains in limbo. The fact that a child is involved implicates Florida’s strong public policy to protect children by determining custody matters in accordance with the best interests of the child. Our decision today protects the parties’ rights of access to the court for dissolution of their marriage and an opportunity to be heard regarding their claimed rights to their assets and the child.”
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