By Amanda Fehd, Associated Press Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008
Click here for the on-line San Francisco Chronicle article
(06-06) 18:37 PDT San Francisco, CA (AP) --
As same-sex couples prepare to wed later this month, at least one county clerk in California's conservative Central Valley is preparing to sidestep the state high court's legalization of gay marriage by shutting down marriage ceremonies.
In fact, two Central Valley county clerks — Kern County's Ann Barnett and Merced County's Stephen Jones — issued statements this week stating they will issue the new gender-neutral marriage licenses as required by law on June 17, but refused to preside over any of the ceremonies, citing space and staff constraints.
In Barnett's case, she plans to stop performing marriage ceremonies for all couples as of June 14.
Barnett's announcement came after the clerk received advice from county lawyers that she could not refuse to marry only couples of her choosing. Barnett's office was also advised by the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian law firm backing a November ballot initiative to ban gay marriage in California by amending the state's constitution.
Merced County's Jones said Friday he would end all ceremonies too, but later retracted his statement after coming under pressure from county officials.
Barnett had also asked county lawyers to file a brief with the Supreme Court opposing the implementation of its May ruling legalizing gay marriage, according to Kern county counsel Mark Nations. Nations was not sure whether the brief was ever filed, and it could not be found under the case's filings.
The Bakersfield Californian printed e-mails on Friday between a lawyer at the Alliance Defense Fund and a clerk in Barnett's office that indicated Barnett was worried about the legal implications of her actions. Glen Lavy, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said the e-mails reflected a routine request for legal advice, were confidential and should never have been printed.
Barnett did not return multiple requests for comment on Friday from The Associated Press.
Jones told the AP late Friday that he retracted his earlier statement after negotiations with the county resulted in approval of another clerk position to perform weddings and removal of some election equipment that will create more space. The small office performs 500 weddings a year.
"On the 17th I expect to be absolutely bombarded," Jones said.
The backlash in these counties is not surprising. In 2000 Kern County voters supported Proposition 22, which required marriage be between one-man and one-woman, with 80 percent, according to the California Secretary of State. Merced County voters supported Prop. 22 with 77 percent in favor.
Many other counties, including Fresno, San Diego and El Dorado, said they would be conducting business as usual.
"This is a very contentious issue, and we are getting calls from both sides. But our position is we follow the law," said Victor Salazar, Fresno County's clerk. "I took an oath to uphold the state constitution and the law and the court has spoken."
Other counties might be trying to stall through other loopholes.
Although the state Office of Vital Records directed county clerks to start using new gender-neutral marriage licenses once the Supreme Court's ruling becomes final at 5 p.m. on June 16, some counties are still unclear about whether they must issue the newly worded licenses the next day, said Stephen Weir, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election officials.
That's because in its May 15 decision the state Supreme Court also directed a midlevel appeals court that upheld the state's one man-one woman marriage laws a year ago to issue a new order legalizing same-sex marriage, and it's not clear when the appeals court must comply.
Weir said the clerk in Kings County has indicated he does not plan to grant the new licenses, which say "Party A" and "Party B" where "bride" and "groom" used to be, until the Court of Appeals takes that step. Weir said Kings County's legal counsel had advised the clerk to wait until the appeals court acts.
Kings County has posted a notice on its Web site saying it does "not anticipate any changes in our current marriage license procedures until such time as the lower court's implementation rulings take effect."
Kings County Clerk Ken Baird did not respond to a call seeking comment.
"They will draw attention to themselves and if they want to fight it, there will be small numbers (of counties) not immediately issuing the licenses and they will be the battlegrounds," Weir said.
All but a few of the state's 58 counties offer to provide marriage ceremonies along with licenses. Contrary to the claim from Kern County that the ceremonies are a drain on resources, Weir said they make money for county coffers. Weir also serves as clerk in Contra Costa County.
"It is a financial plus," said Weir, whose office makes $72,000 a year solemnizing marriages at $60 a pop. "It's something you can do fairly easily, pays its own way and is a service you are providing to your customer."
Meanwhile, at least one same-sex couple has signed up to get married in Kern County.
Whitney Weddell said the staff at the Kern County clerk's office were friendly and helpful as she made the first appointment on Friday morning to get a same-sex marriage license on June 17.
"I kind of see the county clerk as a minor distraction. The Supreme Court ruled, and it's the law and it's a matter of her getting out of the way, which she did this morning," Weddell said.
Associated Press Writer Lisa Leff contributed to this report.