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.
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.
The judge compared the same-sex marriage debate to a wide range of rights previously found to be constitutionally protected, including the National Rifle Association's defense of the right to bear arms as well as interracial marriage and racial integration in schools.
"The Constitution guarantees and protects ALL of its citizens from government interference with those rights," 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."
An appeal of Garcia's decision could lead to a broader ruling affecting same-sex marriage rights statewide.
Nationally, there are more than 70 court cases challenging same-sex marriage bans in 30 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Don Price Johnston, 44, who is among six gay couples now awaiting a Miami judge's decision in a separate lawsuit challenging the same-sex marriage ban, welcomed the latest ruling. "We don't have to be first, we're happy because it's a win for all of Florida," he said.
(Writing by Letitia Stein; Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Cotterell; Editing by David Adams, Susan Heavey)