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Marriage Equality In Okaloosa County

The tradition of getting hitched at the courthouse is no longer an option in several Panhandle counties in Florida. In Okaloosa County, a local law firm is stepping in to fill that void. WUWF’s Danielle Freeman reports, the offer of free wedding ceremonies is open to all, but coincides with the legalization of same sex marriage in the state.

"By virtue of the authority vested in me under the laws of the state of Florida I now pronounce you married, you may kiss your spouse."

In a simple ceremony on Tuesday afternoon, at the law offices of Fleet and Smith P.A. in Shalimar, Brandy Gardner and Michelle Long-Gardner, surrounded by family, exchanged their wedding vows and said “I Do.”

In Okaloosa County, the couple is one of the first to marry after a federal judge’s ruling last week that same-sex couples have the right to be issued and obtain a marriage license.  Brandy Gardner said although she feels like she’s always been married it is important that her family is now safeguarded under Florida law, " She is my partner. She is my wife. I’ve always thought of her that way. Just to be recognized by the law and to have our rights protected, to be able to protect our family with health insurance and all the things that fall under the umbrella of legal marriage. Amazing, that’s the most important thing is protecting our family, I think."

The Crestview couple met while taking classes together and were best friends for a year before dating.  Michelle Long-Gardner said there are many things that first attracted them to each other, but their desire to start a family was at the top of the list.  With their 3 and 4 year old daughters in tow, Michelle said knowing that the girls will officially belong to one another is an incredible feeling, " We have two biological children. She gave birth to Willow and I gave birth to Journey. They have the same donor, but now she can adopt Journey and I can adopt Willow. I mean, they’re our children anyway,  they will legally be our children."

County clerks in Okaloosa, Walton, and Santa Rosa counties have chosen to no longer perform marriage ceremonies for either straight or same-sex couples. However, that’s where the law firm of Fleet and Smith has stepped in.  Bart Fleet, a co-share holder of the firm said he believes that people have a constitutional right to get married in the county and that the firm will hopefully continue to perform ceremonies until the clerk starts doing it again, "We’re fortunate here that we have the resources available to provide those services and we have the ability to do it at no cost. And so that’s what we elected to do.  We just thought it was the right thing to do, it feels right to us."

Currently, the law firm has blocked off 2 hours a day for performing ceremonies, an hour in the morning beginning at 11 a.m. and in the afternoon at 4 p.m. The office has 12 notary publics on staff that can officiate, and if need be, a list of volunteers outside the firm willing to help out. Fleet said that although his office is prepared to meet the need in the community, the main focus should be on couples and the new life they’re beginning, "The problem is that as a society we spend way too much time being adversarial and controversial about how we’re different. We don’t spend nearly enough time embracing how we’re the same. And how people should have a chance to live in peace and harmony and do those kinds of things. This is about how people are the same not how they are different. "

Fleet And Smith P.A. is located at 1283 Eglin Parkway in Shalimar. To make an appointment call (850) 651-4006.