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Healthy Marriage Guide Making Gains in the Florida Legislature

February 10th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

There were 156,168 marriages in Florida in 2018, and nearly half as many divorces.

One estimate is that divorce is costing Florida taxpayers nearly $2 billion a year in direct and indirect costs such as court time and welfare payments, but legislation hopes to strengthen marriages by requiring couples read a privately produced guide to a healthy marriage as a condition of getting a marriage license.

At least five states already require couples to read a marriage guide before they can be wed.

Florida would be the next if sponsor Dennis Baxley has his way.

“This is a tool just to foster discussion. And there are five states where they are doing this with success and have seen their divorce rates go down, which means they are having healthier families,” said Baxley.

The publication is more like a glossy magazine than the currently required Florida bar pamphlet.

Reading one or the other would be acceptable under the legislation that has cleared House and Senate committees.

“And how they are going to resolve differences when they disagree. How they are going to prioritize family spending,” said Baxley.

The Utah publication encourages people to find the positives in their spouses and even encourages readers to make a list.

There is also a quiz on how well you know your husband or wife.

“It’s the height of hypocrisy,” said Barbara DeVane with the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women.

DeVane questions lawmakers own marital commitment.

“They come in with one spouse, they go out with another, or they get caught with their mistress. And the women too. There have been women who have done this,” said DeVane.

The Legislation initially stalled when there was a six member committee that was going to decide what went into the pamphlet.

There were fears it would be political, but once the committee came out, the legislation started moving.

Clerks of Court would be required to post the publication on their websites and and hand out copies when available.

The cost would be born by private family groups.

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Lawmakers Want Couples to Read Marriage Guide Before Tying the Knot

November 5th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

What is the secret to a healthy marriage?

While that question may never truly be answered, a group of Florida lawmakers believe the state isn’t doing enough to help new marriages succeed.

“The present handbook that we give has a few pages that are nice and then it goes to about 16 pages of how to get a divorce,” said Senator Dennis Baxley.

Baxely is backing a bill that would provide couples seeking a marriage license with an informational package full of marriage advice and resources.

“Things like family expectations. What I am expecting out of the marriage and this life together,” said Baxley. “Things like conflict resolution. If we have a difference what are our signals? How are we going to communicate that so that we are effective instead of just having an all out war and throwing the kitchen sink at each other?”

Richard Albertson with Live the Life, said the guides would help couples steer couples to the existing marriage resources in the state.

“If we give that to them in their handbook right when they get married you can really help couples down the road when they hit that bump in the road and they’re struggling and they’re having a rough time to get some help,” said Albertson.

The guides would be developed and distributed through private funds so there would be no cost to taxpayers, unlike the state’s divorce rate, which stands at nearly 50 percent.

House Sponsor Clay Yarborough said divorce takes a toll on every part of society, including about $2 billion from tax payers’ wallets.

“You’re talking about temporary assistance for needy families, the child welfare system, the juvenile justice system, Medicaid,” said Yarborough.

Those seeking a marriage license would have to sign off saying they’ve received and read the guide, but sponsors said whether couples follow the advice is out of their hands.

The bill sponsors also emphasized the guides would focus strictly on themes universal to both gay and straight marriages.

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Bill Filed to Remove Outdated Gay Marriage Ban

January 10th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

LGBTQ Activists and Democratic lawmakers are touting new legislation that would repeal the state’s outdated ban on same sex marriage.

While Florida’s ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ was official overturned by a Federal court in 2014 the language was never officially removed from statute.

Senator Sponsor Jose Rodriguez says repealing the law once and for all would be a way of correcting history.

“This discriminatory language in our statutes does not defend marriage. It does the exact opposite. The highest court in the state of Florida, the highest court in the land has defined what marriage is and has undone the discrimination that remains in our statutes,” said Rodriguez. “This is a simple fix. Let’s make sure our statutes don’t discriminate and conform to the constitution.”

The group also condemned an Executive Order issued by Governor Ron DeSantis Tuesday that reaffirmed that state’s anti-discrimination policies, because they say it arbitrarily excluded protections for gender identity and sexual orientation.

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Sherry Johnson Continues Push to End Child Marriage Nationwide

July 17th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda
Legislation prohibiting child marriage took effect July first in Florida, and the Tampa woman who spent her childhood in slavery is pushing other states to ban child marriage as well.
Sherry Johnson was just eight when she was first raped by her church deacon.
“[It] devastated my life,” said Johnson.
Sherry gave us this copy of her marriage license with the condition she doesn’t want us to show the name of the rapist she was forced to marry at age eleven.
By the time she was 17 she had six kids.
“When little girls were playing with barbie dolls, I was attending to a real doll,” said Johnson.
Sherry was the moving force behind a new Florida law that bans child marriage before age 18.
A cable network documentary is in the works about Sherry’s ordeal and she’s negotiating a contract to update her book, Forgiving the Unforgivable.
Speaking of the unforgivable, Sherry once confronted her mother about what happened to her.
“And why did she allow these things to happen to me and like I said it ended up in a situation where I regret actually even going to her,” said Johnson.
Still, the two have a relationship.
“I forgive her for all the things that she did not do and that she allowed to happen to me,” said Johnson.
For Sherry, the book and the documentary are part of her healing process.
So is her advocacy.
“I’m looking to actually go across the nation to cover this,” said Johnson. “Where a child won’t be married before the age of 18.”
Other states have followed suit, but Sherry says she won’t quit until she’s sure what happened to her won’t happen to anyone else agin anywhere in America.
There are three exceptions to marriage before age 18 in Florida.
One party is no more than two years older than the other, a licensed physician verifies in writing the existence of pregnancy, or if the parents or guardian of each minor consents in writing to the marriage.

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Legislation to Ban Child Marriage Head s to the Governor’s Desk

March 9th, 2018 by Jake Stofan

Legislation to put an end to child marriage in the state is headed to the Governor’s desk after being approved by the House Friday morning.

Forced to Marry at 11 to her rapist, Sherry Johnson has worked tirelessly  to put an end to child marriage… She watched from the House gallery as the chamber voted.

With only one no vote, Legislation to close Florida’s loopholes, which have allowed children of any age to marry got final approval from the State Legislature.

In front of the chamber doors Johnson was embraced by the bill’s sponsors.

“Thank you… Thank you,” she said to Representative Jeanette Nunez.

It’s the moment Johnson has been fighting for for six years.


“My goal was to protect our children and I feel that my mission has been accomplished. This is not about me. I survived,” said Johnson.

The Legislation prohibits marriage licenses to be issued to anyone under the age of 18.

The only exception in the legislation is that a 17-year-old can marry someone as old as 19, but only with parental consent.

Despite hoping for a strict age limit of 18, Johnson says she’s pleased with the final product.


“I’m happy… My heart is happy,” said Johnson.

Children married at a young age, particularly women have higher chances of falling victim to domestic violence and are more likely to live in poverty.

Johnson had this message for young women…

“Don’t allow anyone to actually force them into something that they are not comfortable or feel that they should not do,” said Johnson.

Johnson says she plans to continue her fight in other states, in hopes of putting a stop to child marriage nationwide.

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Marriage at 11 No More?

January 31st, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is one step closer to ending child marriages at any age. A ban on marriage cleared the Florida Senate today with a unanimous vote, and as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the state is one step closer to having the strictest child marriage law in the country.

Sherry Johnson as raped at 8, married at eleven, and couldn’t legally divorce until she was 18.

“She is the voice for this bill” says State Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto.

Johnson has spent the last six years fighting for legislation that bans all marriages for anyone under 18.

“Her parents did the unthinkable” Benacquisto told Senators. “They forced her to marry the man who impregnated her as a child.”

One by one, state senators praised Johnson’s efforts.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for you being able to turn such a negative part of your life into a positive for so many children” said Sen. Rene Garcia.

Sen. Daphne Campbell added  “Florida gonna be the first state ever to pass this bill.”

“37 yeas, zero nays, Mr President.”

And when it came time for a vote, Johnson was all smiles.

“What drove you to make these changes?”

“My passion for children. To not ant them to have to experience the negative things, the negative life I had to experience. And its not necessary. We should always look out for our children.”

Right now, there are no exceptions for anyone under 18 to get married. But that could be changing.

Johnson is worried any changes to the legislation will only put more girls at risk of being sex slaves.
“So you worry if there’s any kind of loophole, that could be you?”

“Exactly, any type of loophole, who knows?”

A House committee is expected to add exceptions on Thursday. After that, the negotiations begin.

The House committee is expected to add language tomorrow allowing 17 and 18 year olds to marry if pregnancy is involved.

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Child Marriage Ban Moves Forward

January 11th, 2018 by Mike Vasilinda

Children under 18 could no longer marry with a parents consent under legislation approved by committee in the state Capitol today. Former Tampa resident Sherry Johnson has pushed for the bill. She was a child bride at eleven.

“I was raped at the age of eight years old, by my mom’s bishop, then by my mom’s husband, then by the deacon at the church. I got pregnant at the age of nine. At the age of ten I gave birth to my daughter. At the age of 11 I was forced to be married to my rapist. And in that relationship, seven years, six children came out of that because I wasn’t able to get a divorce before the age of 18” Johnson told us and the committee.

“Knowing that this is happening continuously in the state of Florida, and there just needs to be a stop to it. We need to look out for our children. It’s very important for us to look out for out children because they can’t protect themselves. They need us to protect them” says Johnson.

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Bill to Ban Child Marriage in Florida Passes First Committee

October 24th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Florida has one of the loosest child Marriage laws in the nation.
Each year 1,000 people under the age of 18 are married in the state.
After abuses, lawmakers are looking to put an end to the practice once and for all.
Over the last 15 years 200,000 Americans under the age of 18 have been wed… 1,000 more are married in state of Florida each year.
Florida’s lax marriage laws are to blame, allowing children of any age to be wed if a pregnancy is involved.
It’s how Sherry Johnson Ended up being forced to marry her rapist at the young age of 11.
“To live that life was catastrophically a turmoil for me and it’s been a turmoil for a long time,” said Johnson.
Jeanne Smoot with the Tahirih Justice Center says in a six year period more than 400 children were married to a spouse who’s age difference would make sexual relations between the two statutory rape.
The age differences often lead to sexual abuse and domestic violence.
“Early marriage compounds a girl’s dependency and vulnerability and can make her insecure through the rest of her life,” said Smoot.
After a failed attempt at changing the law in 2013 the idea of tightening that state’s marriage  law is once again on the table.
New legislation seeks to outlaw any marriage for an individual younger than 18.
“Because there has been such abuse of young men and women to force them into marital situations that are not in their best interest, it is a protective measure for those children who can’t speak up for themselves,” said bill sponsor State Senate Lizbeth Benacquisto.
The proposal would make Florida’s marriage laws the strictest in the nation.
Sherry says if the law passes it would protect young girls like her, allowing them to live out the childhood she never was allowed to have.

“Being married at 11 caused me to repeat the same cycle over and over again until I  understood what was actually happening in my life,” said Johnson.

Between 2010 and 2016, 12 children in Florida under the age of 18 were married to men more than twice their age.
The bill passed its first committee stop Tuesday afternoon.

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Bill Filed to End Child Marriage in Florida

August 21st, 2017 by Jake Stofan


Between 2000 and 2015 16,417 children under the age of 18 were married in the state of Florida.

It’s a practice allowed under Florida law, but a group of activists and Florida Lawmakers are looking to change that.

Florida law says 16 year olds can be married with parental consent and exceptions can be made for children of any age if pregnancy is involved.

46 years ago one such exception was made for then eleven year old Sherry Johnson.

She had been impregnated by a man who had raped her.


“I was actually raped at eight years of age, got pregnant at nine, gave birth to may daughter at ten years,” said Johnson.

Her strict religious parents forced her to become his bride.

With a judges signature the two were husband and wife.

Johnson says she was completely unprepared.


“You don’t know how to be a wife. You have no idea what you’re really getting into,” Johnson said. “All you can try to do is what I did and that’s mimic those I had seen and watched.”

Now 57 Johnson has written a book about her experiences.

She’s on a mission to spread awareness and change a loophole she says is still victimizing children.

About 40 minors aged 15 and under are married each year in the State of Florida according to the latest statistics gathered by the organization, “Unchained at Last”.

In 2014 Legislation passed the House that would have banned marriage under the age of 16, but it didn’t have any traction in the Senate.

This year however, a bill has been filed that would ban marriage for anyone under the age of 18.


“People are learning more [about] what actually happens here in the state of Florida. They’re hearing about it. Where before it was not something that was talked about. It was all so to speak pushed under the rug,” said Johnson.

If approved the the legislation would make Florida’s marriage law the strictest in the nation.

Sherry Johnson runs the TaMar Foundation, which is dedicated to fighting sex abuse.

You can learn more about it by going to following this link.

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Gay Marriage One Year Later

January 5th, 2016 by flanews

For many same sex couples in Florida, roadblock after roadblock made being married seem like an impossibility up until last January.  Matt Galka talks to one of the men responsible for reversing the state’s same sex marriage ban one year after the landmark decision.

A little more than one year ago, there were feelings of frustration from Jim Brenner and his partner Charles Jones

“We’re not asking for anything that other people don’t already have. We’re not asking for anything special,” said Brenner while sitting at his kitchen table in late 2014.

Brenner and Jones had already been married in Canada but until January of last year, Florida didn’t recognize their union. Brenner’s laws suit helped pave the way for change. A federal judge overturned the ban on same sex marriage January 5th of 2015, and couples started getting marriage licenses on the 6th.

“It seems like almost on a daily basis we find something new that’s making our lives the same as anyone elses, but for us it’s a big difference. A big change,” said Brenner.

One year later, what seemed almost impossible in Florida is run of the mill.

On the first day marriage licenses were granted to same sex couples, there were a few protests, but little problems. And one year later, Brenner says everything feels normal.

“The sky didn’t fall, and there are no major thunderbolts coming out of the sky in our direction, so I think it’s pretty much been what we were hoping for,” he said.

It’s nearly impossible to tell how many same sex couples were wed in Florida last year, spouse gender isn’t tracked in the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court made same sex marriage legal throughout the country on June 26th of last year.

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A Marriage Uptick in Florida

July 21st, 2015 by Mike Vasilinda

A new report from the Department of Health shows slightly more people got married last year than the year before, ending what has been a decade long decline, And as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the number of divorces is also falling.

Alma Reyes Rivera tided the knot with her beau Louis in a civil ceremony on Tuesday.

“I do” said the blushing bride when the time came.

Alma and Louis may be part of a growing trend.

“We have been together about three years now, so we decided to get married because we love each other.”

The actual number of marriages and the number of marriages as a percent have been falling for a decade. 2014 saw a three tenths of a percentage uptick in marriage. Michele Taylor from Florida’s Catholic Conference says that’s a good thing.

“Those who are married are generally happier, healthier, and enjoy longer lives than those who are not married” says Taylor.

The vital statistics report for last year shows there were 54 divorces for every one hundred marriages. Not since 1960 has there been a lower percentage of divorces when compared to population. And Before that…the lowest rate was in the 1930’s.

Alma told us she found the lower divorce rate heartening, “That’s a good news that marriages are lasting longer in these times. It’s really difficult” said the newlywed.

One trend that hasn’t changed…more people get married and divorced in Florida when compared to the national average.

Nationally, the marriage and divorce rate is about a half percent less than it is here in the Sunshine state.

Even with the uptick, there were still about 13 thousand fewer marriages from the high water mark in 2006 when about 8 point 8 percent of the population married…compared to 7 point 4 percent last year.

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Supreme Court Makes Gay Marriage Legal Across U.S.

June 26th, 2015 by flanews

A landmark Supreme Court decision has Marriage Equality advocates celebrating. As Matt Galka tells us, the ruling makes Florida’s ban, which was overturned earlier this year, a thing of the past.

It was a special day on Friday for Equality Florida’s Jim VanRiper. 16 years ago he met his now husband. Now the anniversary will also be the day he remembers the Supreme Court making gay marriage legal across the United States.

“It’s an amazing day, a lot of people are celebrating, I’m personally very happy about this, it’s been a long battle many, many years in the making and it’s a wonderful day,” he said.

Same-sex marriage has been recognized in Florida since January.  The 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court put an end to pending appeals.

Michael Sheedy with the Florida Catholic Conference says they’ll continue to support the traditional definition of marriage.


“We’re disappointed. In mandating redefined marriage across society, it’s really a tragic decision that’s going to haunt the common good, and the most vulnerable among us, especially the children. Our laws should protect the right of children to be raised by a mother and father and they’re really at risk with this decision,” said Sheedy.

Florida’s Attorney General released a statement following the ruling saying that her office had been seeking uniformity.

Pam Bondi had a pending appeal on the state’s reversal of the same sex marriage ban. That is basically a mute point now. Her statement partly read “legal efforts were not about personal beliefs” and that “the court has spoken.”

The ruling struck down the remaining same sex marriage bans in 13 states.

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Gay Marriage Begins

January 7th, 2015 by flanews

As gay couples across the state lined up to get married today, the panhandle couple responsible for the states reversal on the ban waited. Matt Galka was there with them when they made it official.

It was finally the big day for Steve Schlairet and Ozzie Russ.

The Washington county couple has been together for 18 years with no means of being married in Florida. Their lawsuit prompted a federal judge to overturn the state’s ban on gay marriage. But the men weren’t at the courthouse when the doors opened.

“I’m not going to jump up and down like I won a million dollars, that would be different, but I’m happy I helped millions of people,” said Russ.

A group of protestors did line up early. Local pastors said they were disappointed their small town was at the center of the debate in Florida.

“They just don’t have the right to throw out the sanctity of marriage. We voted on that, we put it into law that’s a democratic process, and we’ve been violated,” said protester Alan English.

Anti-gay marriage advocates say they’ll keep fighting. John Stemburger Helped pass an amendment defining traditional a marriage in 2008. He’s hoping for the US Supreme Court to step in

“If the Supreme Court has a state’s rights issue, then the marriage amendment is immediately invigorated,” he said.

The state’s Attorney General agrees.

“We hope they take it, that’s what we’ve wanted all along because we want uniformity,” said Pam Bondi.

While some may continue to denounce same sex couples, the only label Schlairet and Russ care about being put on them now, is married.

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Who Gets a Gay Marriage License?

December 29th, 2014 by flanews

A judge’s ruling striking down the state’s ban on gay marriage will allow for marriage licenses to be handed out next week, but for who? Matt Galka spoke with the couple who filed the lawsuit, and tells us county clerks of court don’t appear to be ready to hand licenses out to everyone, and the state will need to clarify that.

If you head to Chipley, Florida, population 3500, in Florida’s Panhandle, you’ll be in the middle of the state’s gay marriage debate. That’s where Ozzie Russ and Steve Schlairet live. The couple filed a successful lawsuit challenging the state’s gay marriage ban. Having their relationship officially recognized had never bean option in their 18 years together.

“It never crossed our mind to get married, because we thought what we had was as good as what they’ll allow us to have,” said Russ.

That will change for the two men on January 6th. They will be allowed to get a marriage license, but county clerks of court aren’t sure if it’s only them or everyone can. Clerks outside of their home in Washington County were advised by attorneys not to give them out or risk criminal penalty.

While Washington County will have to hand out the licenses, it wasn’t the couple’s intention to just be in it for themselves

“His injunction is mandatory for every clerk in the state of Florida and he’s now asking the defendants if they understand the order,” said Schlairet.

The judge who made the ruling ordered the state to respond by Monday and clarify where his ruling applies. While gay couples around Florida wait, the couple at the center is looking forward to officially tying the knot.

“I know when we do get married, the public can’t correct me and say ‘he’s not your husband,’ I can say ‘yes he is,'” said Russ.

Thousands of other Floridians are hoping they can say the same about their significant others.

The state’s Department of Management Services was asked to “explicitly set out the Secretary’s position on whether the preliminary injunction binds a Florida clerk of court.”

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Bondi Mum on Gay Marriage

December 9th, 2014 by flanews

Will Florida’s Attorney General continue to fight same sex marriage? As Matt Galka tells us, with a date set for gay marriage licenses to be handed out, that question remains unanswered.

If Florida’s Attorney General has an opinion on gay marriage licenses being handed out January 6th, she’s not saying yet.

“We’re reviewing the ruling,” said Pam Bondi after the cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Bondi has fought to keep the ban in place because she says she needs to honor the state’s constitution. We pressed her on her answer following Tuesday’s meeting. She told us two more times they were reviewing the ruling.

A federal ruling that would overturn the ban statewide was handed down in August but a stay was placed on it until January.  Bondi had asked for an extension on the stay which wasn’t granted.

County clerks are trying to figure out if they can even hand the licenses out. Clerks of court were told over the summer that only clerks in counties that have had the ban overturned would be allowed to grant licenses. That was before a statewide ruling was made.

The American Civil Liberties Union helped file the federal lawsuit that threw out the gay marriage ban.

“They can’t enforce a law that’s unconstitutional,” said Baylor Johnson with ACLU.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Florida Association of Court Clerks told us “they just want to make sure they’re following the law.” Barring a last minute change, same sex couples can start getting their marriage licenses on January 6th.

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