Marriage Equality Group Hosts Town Hall Meeting To Answer Public's Questions

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PANAMA CITY - A group of local activists sponsored a town hall meeting Thursday night in support of gay rights. They believe the tide is turning in their favor in the legal battle over same sex marriages. One local coupe at tonight's meeting is part of a lawsuit to legalize gay marriages here in Florida.

Equality Florida is a group dedicated to securing full equality for Florida's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, community. Thursday night they hosted a town hall to organize supporters on a local level.

Jennie Reiken is a Coordinator of the "Get Engaged" initiative for Equality Florida. She says, "I think folks across the state don't realize that these smaller communities have such support. We wanted to put together a town hall to bring everyone together, talk about the work that's going on surrounding marriage. Talk about the momentum around our court cases and hear from folks in the community."

Steve Schlairet and his partner, Ozzie Russ, have been a couple for 20-years. They live in Chipley.

Schlairet says, "We live in a small country town and once people get to know you and know that you're just like them, I think we've been treated very warmly and with a lot of support from the people in our town and I think that's the main thing that's going to change people, is to know someone who's gay or lesbian and see that they're just like you."

Steve and Ozzie are also part of the statewide lawsuit to overturn the state's constitutional amendment that bans gay marriages. Several state judges and one federal judge have found the ban unconstitutional. State Attorney General Pam Bondi is appealing those rulings.

Most people at Thursday night's meeting say winning the legal battle is only the beginning.

Sean Cooley is a Panama City native who is gay and is a supporter of the equality movement. He says, "Passing a law is one thing but changing the minds and opening the eyes of everyone in the state is another thing so Equality Florida and other organizations across the state are doing a great job of bringing folks together to have those conversations in their communities."

Schlairet added "The citizens of the United States have a legal contract and it's called the Constitution and that constitution says all people will be treated equal, whether you like them or not and that's what we’re waiting to fulfill. The fact that equality is for everyone who lives in this country, for all citizens."
Ozzie added, "Come to the meetings, don't keep your mouths closed. You know, voice your opinion.”

Ozzie, Steve, and their lawyers will be in court on October 22nd to present their argument. Equality Florida officials say that making same-sex marriage legal would add an estimated $180 million to Florida's economy.