Same-Sex Marriages Begin in Miami, Hours Before the Rest of Florida

MIAMI (Reuters) - A judge ruled same-sex marriages could begin in Miami-Dade County on Monday, just ahead of gay couples being able to tie the knot statewide after midnight when Florida becomes the 36th U.S. state to allow people of the same sex to wed.

Circuit Court Judge Sarah Zabel lifted a stay on her earlier decision finding the state's gay marriage ban unconstitutional. A federal judge had already ordered same-sex marriage licenses to be issued in the rest of the state starting Tuesday.

Zabel's order set off cheers and tearful embraces at a packed courthouse in Miami, where at least two couples planned to get married as soon as their paperwork was processed.

"Our son is finally going to have a family and not be a second-class citizen," said Cathy Pareto, who had sued over the ban and planned to wed on Monday.

#BREAKING: First weddings for same-sex couples now happening in Miami-Dade County.

— WSVN 7 News (@wsvn) January 5, 2015

Clerks in other parts of the state prepared to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on Tuesday, when a stay expires on a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee, who also struck down the ban approved by Florida voters in 2008.

The U.S. Supreme Court last month declined a request from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to extend the stay on Hinkle's ruling.

In Broward County, which includes the city of Fort Lauderdale, marriage licenses will be handed out starting at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday and a mass wedding will follow at 3 a.m., according to the local clerk's website.

Crowds are also expected to gather overnight in other parts of the state, with marriage licenses to be issued after midnight in the Florida Keys and Osceola County in the central part of the state.

However, some courthouses will not be hosting ceremonies after issuing licenses. Clerks in a number of the state's more conservative regions decided to end all wedding ceremonies as they faced the prospect of same-sex marriages.

The legalization of gay marriage in Florida means more than 216 million Americans will live in states permitting same-sex weddings, representing about 70 percent of the United States, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy group.

At this time last year, couples of the same sex could legally wed in 16 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., accounting for about one-third of the country, the group said.