TAMPA — In the face of criticism from gay rights activists and praise from the religious right, Attorney General Pam Bondi says she‘s defending the Florida constitution’s anti-gay marriage provision not because she believes it’s right or wrong but because it expresses the will of the voters.
Bondi issued a news release Tuesday reacting to criticism of a brief she filed in a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. She said she’s defending the ban because it’s her “sworn duty to uphold the laws of the land,” and the brief “doesn’t argue for or against same sex marriage as a matter of policy, wisdom, or fairness.”
Rather, she said, it argues only that “the voters had the right to adopt this definition of marriage, just as they have the right in the future to change their minds and afford legal recognition to same sex marriage, should they so choose.”
Same-sex marriage rights advocates say Bondi, a Republican, is trying to have it both ways — offering an election-year crowd-pleaser to the religious right, with which she hasn’t had a smooth relationship, while still portraying herself as open to accepting same-sex relationships.
They reacted angrily Monday to the brief, saying it doesn’t simply defend the rights of voters who passed the law but repeats anti-gay propaganda.
“She’s come under a hail of criticism and now is attempting to walk back the inflammatory portions of her brief as if they don’t exist,” said Nadine Smith of Tampa, head of the state’s most prominent gay rights group, Equality Florida.
“It’s craven politics. I don’t think she was expecting the firestorm that resulted and is trying to distance herself from her own words,” Smith said.
Bondi declined to be interviewed for this story.
Florida voters passed the constitutional amendment defining marriage as male-female in 2008.
The federal lawsuit by the ACLU seeks to force the state to recognize the marriages of couples wed legally in other states that don’t have bans.
In the brief, Bondi said “disrupting Florida’s existing marriage laws would impose significant public harm.”
“The promotion of family continuity and stability is a legitimate state interest ... increasing the likelihood that children will be born into and raised by the mothers and fathers who produced them in stable and enduring family units.”
In a news release Monday, Sally Phillips, president of the Democratic GLBT Caucus, condemned what she called those “homophobic comments.”
“Her claim that disrupting existing marriage laws ‘would cause significant harm’ is relying on debunked arguments and cites outdated information on Floridians’ views on marriage equality,” Phillips said. “A bipartisan majority of Floridians now support marriage equality.”
But at the same time, Orlando lawyer John Stemberger of the Florida Family Council, a leading conservative Christian political advocacy group, issued a news release praising Bondi, headlined, “What Leadership Looks Like.”
“In a day when public officials are cowardly running from their sworn obligations whenever so-called ‘gay-rights’ challenges are at hand, Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi is to be commended for her courageous and clear defense,” Stemberger wrote.
“Lawless activist judges across America are indeed daily striking down marriage laws, creating new rights out of thin air that have no precedent in law or history.”
He said Bondi “is being demonized ... for simply doing her job.”
Following Supreme Court decisions last year favorable to same-sex marriage rights in federal law, judges in a number of states have overruled state bans, and polls have shown a rapid swing of public opinion on the subject, with increasing numbers favoring equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.
In Florida, the “marriage protection” amendment passed with 62 percent of the vote in 2008.
But polls showed an even split among Florida voters on the issue by 2012, and in April, a Quinnipiac University Florida poll showed 56-39 percent support for allowing same-sex marriages.
As attorney general, Bondi has adopted a number of strict conservative positions, surprising some long-time backers in her home town of Tampa who had expected her to be more moderate.
But in her 2010 campaign, she endured grumbling from religious right activists, including questions about her long-term relationship with a Tampa man to whom she’s not married.
In 2010, while Bondi was fighting a primary against former Lieutenant Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, Stemberger sent an email to conservative Christians questioning her religious views and her relationship with her boyfriend.