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, said they decided to sue in part to represent the prominent gay community in the Florida Keys.
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, interracial marriage, school racial integration - and even a march by Nazi supremacists in a Jewish neighborhood in Illinois.
"The Constitution guarantees and protects ALL of its citizens from government interference with those rights," Garcia wrote.
John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Action, which led the push for the 2008 same-sex marriage ban, said he hoped Thursday's decision will be put on hold until there is a ruling in one of cases now pending at the federal level.
"The judge in this decision has disrespected and in essence disenfranchised just under 5 million voters who, in an act of direct democracy, defined this issue in our state constitution," Stemberger said.
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.
"Today’s court ruling in Florida is further proof that America is ready for marriage equality nationwide," Sarah Warbelow, the group's legal director, said in a statement.
(Writing by Letitia Stein; Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Cotterell; Editing by David Adams, Susan Heavey and Bill Trott)