Kern County Clerk Ann Barnett has announced that her office will stop performing all weddings a few days before June 17, the date that same-sex couples can legally apply for marriage licenses.
Barnett's staff processes marriage licenses for hundreds of Kern County residents each year and it will continue to do, for both straight and gay couples, beginning June 17 as required by law, she said in a written statement. But as of June 13, the staff will no longer officiate at civil ceremonies for an extra $30 fee.
Officials cited financial reasons for the decision. But internal memos between a high-ranking official in Barnett's office and a conservative Christian legal defense fund, published in the Bakersfield Californian this week, indicate that Barnett may have acted on principle rather than for financial reasons.
As Barnett, who holds an elected office, prepared to make her decision public Wednesday, an assistant clerk in her office sent an e-mail to attorneys at the Alliance Defense Fund asking if its lawyers would defend her in court if she "ceases performing all marriage ceremonies."
"We have the news media calling for her response, and we need to issue a news release today, but she really needs to be assured of your legal assistance before she speaks to them, as we fully expect to be sued and our own counsel is not being of help," the e-mail from Assistant Clerk Glenn Spencer said, according to the Californian.
Barnett and Spencer did not return a phone call Friday. An office aide said Barnett would be out of the office until Monday.
But Brian Raum, a senior attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, confirmed that Barnett's office has sought out his group, calling the e-mails a "routine request for legal advice." If Barnett needs legal protection, his group will provide it, Raum said.
The Alliance Defense Fund recently asked the California Supreme Court to stay the marriage ruling, which the court refused to do.
"The Alliance Defense Fund is prepared to defend any clerk who exercises his or her right not to perform wedding ceremonies under California law," he said.
The Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund was founded in 1994 by James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family and other Christian ministers. On its website, it says it frequently files lawsuits in cases involving gay rights, abortion and issues involving the separation of church and state.
Shannon Price Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said he didn't have a problem with Barnett's decision as long as she applied it evenly.
"They are providing marriage licenses to everyone and they are not performing weddings for anyone," Minter said. "So there is no discrimination."
In conservative Kern County, however, Barnett's decision unleashed a firestorm of debate, with many blog posters giving her a slap on the back.
"What a blessing it is for an elected official to stand their ground concerning their moral and religious beliefs!!!" someone who gave the name Donnabelhumeur wrote on a blog hosted by the Californian. "Good for you, Ann, you do not disappoint those who know and love you, and more importantly you do not disappoint God!"
But others saw her actions as improper for an elected official, even if her office is not required to officiate at civil ceremonies.
FloridaStateGrad, another poster on the Californian blog, said there is nothing wrong with standing up for beliefs. "However, when you are a government official, you have absolutely no right to lie or take advantage of your position for the sake of standing up for what you believe in."
The Rev. Bryd Tetzlaff of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Kern County, which supports same-sex marriage, said she and other ministers were planning to show up outside Barnett's office June 17 to perform marriages for anyone who wants them. They will stay all day if necessary, Tetzlaff said.
"It's the right thing to do," Tetzlaff said.
In her statement, Barnett said her office would be unable to accommodate the flood of marriage requests expected in the wake of the state Supreme Court's May 15 ruling allowing same-sex weddings in California.
"Because of long-term administrative plans, budgetary reasons and the need to increase security for the election, the clerk's office will cease solemnizing weddings, which is discretionary on the part of the county clerk," she said in a statement released Wednesday.
Clerks in many California counties are planning to issue licenses and perform ceremonies for same-sex couples as soon as they are legally able to do so. Santa Cruz, for instance, is accepting appointments.
San Francisco city officials are expecting to marry as many as 500 couples a day.
But other offices, such as Santa Barbara's, don't offer anything but licenses and don't plan to alter that practice come June 17.