The Huffington Post | By Antonia Blumberg
Florida pastor Jim Merritt got the birthday gift of a lifetime on Jan. 1 when a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional to prohibit same-sex marriages anywhere in the state.
The ruling went into effect on Jan. 6, and Merritt celebrated the day by opening the doors of Holy Cross Metropolitan Community Church, where he is senior pastor, to perform free ceremonies. With the help of his fellow church clergy, Merritt oversaw 20 same-sex marriages, in addition to marrying his longtime partner, Al Leach.
"It was the best birthday gift I could have gotten," Merritt told The Huffington Post. "Al and I have been together in a committed relationship for over 20 years... For us to achieve marriage equality at home was a joyful occasion."
Holy Cross was decorated for the occasion and a local organization catered a reception that ran from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Merritt, who leads his denomination's marriage equality efforts around the globe, said the church hoped to provide a "normal" wedding experience while accommodating as many couples as possible. Many invited friends and family to attend, and some even stayed for the other ceremonies just to "be a part of this historic moment," the pastor said.
The ruling was particularly potent in a state that has had a long, uphill battle for marriage equality. In the 1970s, singer Anita Bryant publicly headed the Save Our Children campaign which fought to overturn a state ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation. Her campaign won with 69 percent of the vote.
But in 2004, Merritt and Leach sued Orange County Clerk of Courts Lydia Gardner for denying them a marriage license and were represented by none other than Ellis Rubin -- the same attorney who had represented Bryant back in the 70s.
"He told me it his was his opportunity to do penance for his sins," Merritt told HuffPost.