Circuit Judge Luis M. Garcia said same-sex couples could get marriage licenses as early as Tuesday in Monroe County, but Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi said the voters' will must be respected. An overwhelming majority approved a constitutional amendment in 2008 that defines marriage as a union solely between one man and one woman. Her notice of appeal creates an automatic stay that prevents any same-sex marriage licenses from being issued, her office said.
Garcia, appointed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in 2000 and re-elected twice since then, invoked other moments in American history when the courts had to guarantee the civil rights of minorities. He said Florida's ban violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.
"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 the rights of the powerless, even at the cost of offending the majority," Garcia wrote.
"When Nazi supremacists won the right to march in Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood; or when a black woman wanted to marry a white man in Virginia; or when black children wanted to go to an all-white school, the Constitution guarantees and protects ALL of its citizens from government interference with those rights," he added.
"It hit us a little bit by surprise," said attorney Bernadette Restivo, who filed suit on behalf of Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, a couple for 11 years. "But it's very well written ... a thorough analysis of the argument, so we couldn't be happier."
Huntsman and Jones were celebrating Thursday night at a nightclub in Key West.
"We did this to change the laws for everybody in the state of Florida," Huntsman said. "Not just for us, but for all the people that have been hurting over this undue law that is not right."
Lee said he could barely believe the news when he heard it.
"I actually dropped my phone when I got the call," Jones said. "I was so excited, so proud and happy, so glad that we made it this far."
Florida has long been a gay rights battleground. In the 1970s, singer and orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant successfully campaigned to overturn a Dade County ordinance banning discrimination against gays. The county commission reinstated those protections two decades later.
In 1977, Florida became the only state prohibiting all gay people from adopting children. A state court judge threw out that law in 2008, finding "no rational basis" for that ban, and two years later, the state decided not to appeal, making gay adoption legal.
Gay marriage opponents said Thursday's ruling disenfranchises nearly five million voters — the 62 per cent who approved the marriage ban. Repealing the amendment would require at least 60 per cent support.
"They do not have a consensus of Floridians, so they're trying to go to the courts for a quick fix. If they're going to do it, that would be the appropriate way to do — take it to the people again with another amendment. They deliberately passed on that strategy because they know that Floridians by and large support marriage between a man and a woman," Stemberger said.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott's office attempted to straddle the issue in a statement late Thursday, 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."
His Democratic challenger Charlie Crist had nothing but praise, calling the ruling "a great step toward equality in Florida" via Twitter.
Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, and gay marriage proponents have won more than 20 legal decisions against state marriage limits since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defence of Marriage Act last year. With many rulings under appeal, it's likely the justices in Washington may ultimately decide the question for all states.
The ground is shifting in Florida, too, but the state remains politically complex.
The live-and-let-live Keys, captured by Jimmy Buffet in "Margaritaville," are one of the most liberal parts of the state, which runs the gamut from conservative, reliably Republican areas that closely resemble the Deep South to political swing region of central Florida to the Democratic bastions of populous South Florida. And within each area are exceptions, such as Miami's GOP-leaning Cuban-Americans.
Far removed culturally from Anita Bryant's Florida, Huntsman and Jones met a gay pride celebration in Key West, where they planned to celebrate on Duval Street Thursday night.
Two other challenges of Florida's marriage ban are pending in court. Attorneys for gay couples in Miami-Dade County argue that denying marriage to gay parents stigmatizes their adopted children, making them second-class citizens. Another case, in federal court in Tallahassee, would force Florida to allow gay marriage as well as recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Associated Press reporters Tony Winton in Miami and Gary Fineout in Tallahassee contributed to this report.