SAN FRANCISCO – As same-sex couples prepare to wed in California later this month, one county clerk in the conservative Central Valley plans to sidestep the state's legalization of gay marriage by not performing any ceremonies.
Ann Barnett plans to stop performing ceremonies for all couples in Kern County as of June 14. She will issue the new gender-neutral marriage licenses as required by law on June 17, but refuses to preside over any ceremony because of space and staff constraints, she said in a statement.
Barnett's announcement came after she received advice from county lawyers that she could not refuse to marry only couples of her choosing.
Barnett, who also got advice from the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian law firm, did not return multiple requests for comment on Friday from The Associated Press.
Another Central Valley clerk, Merced County's Stephen Jones, said Friday he would end all ceremonies too, but he later retracted his statement after coming under pressure from county officials.
Jones told the AP that he was reversing course after negotiations with the county resulted in approval of another clerk position to perform weddings and some additional space. The small office performs 500 weddings a year.
"On the 17th I expect to be absolutely bombarded," Jones said.
The backlash in the two counties is not surprising. In 2000, 80 percent of Kern County voters supported Proposition 22, which required marriage be between one-man and one-woman. Merced County voters supported it with 77 percent in favor. The proposition passed statewide with 61 percent of the vote.
The state Office of Vital Records directed clerks in the state's 58 counties to start using new gender-neutral marriage licenses once the Supreme Court's ruling becomes final at 5 p.m. on June 16. The new licenses say "Party A" and "Party B" where "bride" and "groom" used to be.
Many counties, including Fresno, San Diego and El Dorado, said they would be conducting business as usual. Some, however, might stall through another loophole.
In its May 15 decision, the Supreme Court directed a midlevel appeals court to issue a new order legalizing same-sex marriage. The lower court had upheld the state's one man-one woman marriage laws a year ago.
It's not clear when the appeals court must comply with the high court's order.
The clerk in Kings County has indicated he does not plan to grant the new licenses until the Court of Appeals takes that step, said Stephen Weir, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.
Kings County has 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.
All but a few 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, the clerk in Contra Costa County, said they make money.
"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 clerk's office was 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.