By Steve Rothaus and David Smiley

In a decision some called "the beginning of the end" of Florida's ban on gay marriage, a Monroe County judge ruled Thursday that two Key West bartenders and other gay couples must be allowed to marry.

Monroe County Chief Circuit Judge Luis M. Garcia ordered the county clerk's office to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples as early as Tuesday morning. In doing so, he sided with Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, who argued that the ban on same-sex marriage in the Florida Constitution violated their rights under the U.S. Constitution.

"The court is aware that the majority of voters oppose same-sex marriage, but it is our country's proud history to protect the rights of the individual, the rights of the unpopular and rights of the powerless, even at the cost of offending the majority," Garcia wrote in his opinion.

Though Garcia's order applies only to Monroe County, it would allow same-sex couples from around the state to flock to the Keys to get married. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, however, quickly filed a notice of appeal Thursday, putting Garcia's ruling on hold and leaving open the possibility that nothing will change next week unless Garcia forces the issue with further action.

"With many similar cases pending throughout the entire country, finality on this constitutional issue must come from the U.S. Supreme Court," Bondi said in a statement.

Despite the uncertainty, Garcia's ruling set off both a wave of celebration from Key West to Tallahassee and vows from conservative Christian groups to protect Florida's definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. Meanwhile, Democrats hoped to capitalize on the ruling, with the state party chairwoman declaring Thursday that "love wins."

Huntsman and Jones, who met at a gay pride celebration and have been a couple for 11 years, told the Miami Herald they were "ecstatic." The couple sued the Monroe County Clerk in April for a marriage license, and said the wait felt like forever.

"I can't believe it finally happened," said Jones. "Love is love. It doesn't matter if it's a guy and woman or two women or two men. Love is love."

The couple celebrated Thursday night at Duval Street's Aqua Nightclub, where they wore rainbow sashes and held hands on a stage. A small crowd cheered and whistled -- and then booed when it was announced that Bondi was appealing the ruling.

In Tallahassee, dozens gathered outside of the historic Capitol building and waved rainbow flags and signs adorned with hearts. There was no music, but some attendees were so happy that they danced.

"It's hard to put into words," said Amanda James, who cried when she heard the news. "I feel free now. It's like, I'm a real person. For the first time, I have the same rights as everybody else."

In Miami Beach, Stratton Pollitzer, the deputy director of Equality Florida, which organized many of the celebrations, said the organization had fielded thousands of phone calls and messages with the same question: "Can I get married?"

Conservatives say they will do everything they can to make sure the answer remains a resounding "no," and blasted Garcia's ruling Thursday as another overreach by an activist judge.

Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalition of Florida, called the ruling a "corrupt decision," and a "judicial lynching of nearly 8 million Florida voters" who voted to ban same-sex marriage in 2008.

John Stemberger, who led that 2008 campaign, said he would keep fighting.

"This is an issue worth dying for," said Stemberger, president and general counsel of the Florida Family Policy Council in Orlando. "Every domestic partnership, every single civil union, every couple that cohabitates, these arrangements dilute and devalue marriage."

Stemberger said he wasn't "daunted" by Garcia's ruling, nor was he surprised.

"The court was very hostile to our position," he said. "This is a very sad day for Floridians. This is an entirely illegitimate process. The judge had no legal authority in this decision."

The Monroe County ruling is just one front in the fight over the state's gay marriage ban. Another case is pending in Tallahassee. And yet another is awaiting a ruling in Miami-Dade County, where six same-sex couples and the LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida Institute sued County Clerk Harvey Ruvin for the right to marry.

In both the Monroe and Dade cases, Florida Assistant Attorney General Adam Tanenbaum argued that the judges should not dismiss Florida's constitutional gay marriage ban, which passed with the support of 62 percent of voters. The state, citing a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, contended that the definition of marriage belongs exclusively to the state and is exempt from federal scrutiny.

But in his ruling Thursday, Garcia rejected the state's position, saying changes in society and case law have made same-sex marriage a federal question. "This court concludes that a citizen's right to marry is a fundamental right that belongs to the individual," he wrote.

In Miami-Dade, Judge Sarah Zabel has yet to rule on whether to allow the plaintiffs to wed or go to trial. The couples are Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello of Coconut Grove; Dr. Juan Carlos Rodriguez and David Price of Davie; Vanessa and Melanie Alenier of Hollywood; Todd and Jeff Delmay of Hollywood; Summer Greene and Pamela Faerber of Plantation, and Don Price Johnston and Jorge Isaias Diaz of Miami.

The Miami-Dade plaintiffs' attorney, Elizabeth Schwartz, said she is filing Garcia's decision with Zabel so that she can consider the opinion. She called the ruling "another nail in the coffin of Florida's unfair marriage ban."

"We are hopeful we will see a similar ruling by Zabel very soon," said Schwartz.

The battle over gay marriage is being waged across the nation. A federal judge last week ruled Kentucky's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. According to the group Freedom to Marry, LGBT advocates have won 23 times in federal, state and appellate courts since June 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a key portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

Last year, Supreme Court justices determined the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages, but did not address whether state marriage bans are legal. Conservative activists in Florida, who campaigned six years ago for the constitutional gay marriage ban, have fought to keep it in place.

Gov. Rick Scott late Thursday issued a statement, saying he "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."

Meanwhile, support flowed out from the state's Democratic politicians.

Bondi's opponent in the November election, Perry Thurston, called on the incumbent attorney general to "stop wasting taxpayer dollars on her ideological crusade" against same-sex marriage. Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist followed with his own statement: "Today was a great step towards equality in Florida."

Crist, who held office as a Republican before becoming a Democrat in 2012, was governor when Florida passed the constitutional amendment banning the recognition of same-sex marriages. He has since called the ban "discriminatory."

University of Miami law professor Charlton Copeland said Thursday that he agreed with Bondi that gay marriage is likely to end up back before the U.S. Supreme Court. More difficult to determine, he said, is whether gay couples will actually be allowed to get married come Tuesday.

"The stay could be lifted by Judge Garcia," he said. "But it's not clear what will happen."

(c)2014 The Miami Herald