By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - Eight Florida gay couples backed by a gay rights group have filed a lawsuit to force the state to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, saying their exclusion violates the right to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit, filed late Wednesday, comes on the heels of another in January filed by six same-sex couples seeking to overturn the state's ban on gay marriage.
Florida's refusal to recognize out-of-state marriages unlawfully denies gay couples legal protections available to different-sex couples and discriminates against their children, according to the lawsuit filed in Florida's Northern District.
The lawsuit is also being brought by the SAVE Foundation, a gay rights group that does education and grassroots organizing in Florida, on behalf of its members, with the support of the Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
"Marriage matters for a number of reasons ... It strengthens families and provides security in times of need," said Daniel Tilley an attorney with the ACLU of Florida.
Across the United States, dozens of lawsuits have been filed since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act forced the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages.
One of the couples in the Florida lawsuit, Palm Beach Gardens firefighter Sloan Grimsley and Joyce Albu, a consultant for autistic children, were married in New York in August 2011 and have been together for nine years. They are raising two adopted daughters, aged 2 and 5, as well as Joyce's two teenage sons.
"If something were to happen to Sloan in the line of duty, I will get no survivor benefits under current Florida law," Albu said, including life insurance or pension.
Another couple named in the lawsuit complained that Florida law prevents them from getting cheaper health insurance rates as a married couple.
Plaintiffs Chuck Hunziger, 81, and Bob Collier, 79, were married in New York in July and have been together for over 50 years, and are both military veterans.
"Florida considers Bob and Chuck to be legal strangers," said Tilley. "This demeans the relationship of all same sex married couples, and it tells our clients' children that their families are inferior," he said.
Florida's gay-marriage law was added to the state's constitution in 2008 after approval by voters. The ban could become a major issue in elections in November.
Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, has said he believes in "traditional marriage." His likely challenger, former Republican Governor Charlie Crist who is now a Democrat recently came out in support of gay marriage and apologized for his previous backing of the constitutional ban.
Advocates for same-sex marriage in Florida say support has surged since 2008, when 62 percent of the state's voters approved the ban in a constitutional amendment. A 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute showed 54 percent of Floridians supported same-sex marriage. Still, gay marriage opponents have vowed to fight any attempt to reverse the ban.
Albu said she sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
"I feel very confident at this stage of the game. We are in 2014, people are coming out, no-one is ashamed," she said. "Our marriage means everything to us. We would love to have our children see it recognized, that would be so powerful."
(Editing by David Gregorio, Richard Chang and Andrew Hay)