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Banned in Bakersfield

June 12, 2008|PATT MORRISON

I haven't visited Bakersfield in a while, so I didn't have any inkling that the capital city of Kern County had turned into the West Hollywood of the Central Valley, a madcap gay mecca right there in the breadbasket of the Golden State.

It must have, though, because Kern County's auditor-controller-clerk, Ann Barnett, has decided that, after Friday, she'll be locking the doors of the county's two civil wedding chapels. As she puts it, once same-sex couples can legally tie the knot in California, "we will not have the staff or space to deal with an increase in both licenses and ceremonies."

Well, that's her story. To my eyes, and many others', Barnett is locking the doors on the county's low-cost marriages for any and all affianced couples because she doesn't want anything to do with same-sex marriages.

Conservative and religious blogs are singing her praises for the courage of her convictions. What courage? Using straight couples as human shields, denying them civil weddings because she doesn't want her office to officiate at gay weddings?

She wants to not have her wedding cake and keep everyone else from eating it too.

The Bakersfield Californian’s reporting, which includes e-mails from the county clerk's office to a conservative Christian legal defense fund, shows that Barnett first asked the county's legal counsel to petition the state Supreme Court to put the brakes on its gay marriage ruling. Then she tried to resign the clerk part of her job -- the part that handles marriages. She heard back from the county attorney that if she refused marriages to gay couples only, there would be "a lawsuit before breakfast." Hence the lame no-room-at-the-chapel excuse, applied to one and all.

If she's against gay marriage, I'd have more regard for her if she just said, "I think it's an affront to God and I won't perform any or let them be performed by my office. So sue me." And someone would, and then others would rally to her defense, and she could be a real martyr instead of a bureaucratic weenie.

Merced County's clerk said he wouldn't perform any marriages either but reversed himself. In San Diego County, where more than 100 employees are empowered to conduct marriages, those who object can be reassigned -- a policy crafted, County Assessor-Recorder-Clerk Gregory Smith told the San Diego Union-Tribune, out of "dignity and respect to my staff" and "dignity and respect to the couples who want to get married."

I called Barnett to get her side of all this, but her home phone had been disconnected, and the message I left at her office wasn't returned. Californian columnist Lois Henry did talk to Barnett, who squirmed and backtracked and denied that closing down civil marriage in Kern County had anything to do with her personal feelings. Her circumlocutions were positively Clintonesque. My favorite was when she said, apropos of the state Supreme Court decision: "It was not unanimous." By that standard, Al Gore should be job-sharing the Oval Office three days a week.

Some people are pinning their hopes on a November ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage, again. Californians voted to ban it eight years ago too; in Kern County, it passed by 80%. A Bakersfield reader of mine, Daniel, tells me the place is a bit different now. "The real estate boom brought in truckloads of new residents who, although relatively conservative, have certainly had a broader view of life."

I don't expect an 80% vote in favor this November -- unless I should be basing my prediction on numbers from a Kern County Ford dealership's radio ad . It declared that "since we all know that 86 out of every 100 of us are Christians who believe in God, we at Kieffe and Sons Ford wonder why we don't just tell the other 14% to sit down and shut up." An early apology from the owner was choice: "We're obviously sorry that it offends a given segment who identifies themselves as atheist."

But "majority" doesn't mean infallible, let alone constitutional. In 1964, Californians voted 2 to 1 to change the state Constitution to let property owners discriminate against any buyer or renter for any reason -- race, gender, religion, even shoe size, I suppose. One week later, the federal government cut off all housing funds to California, and three years later, the Supreme Court declared such housing discrimination illegal.

In the meantime, Kern County needs its own version of the 1960s, specifically the Freedom Rides. Busloads of volunteers -- Universal Life Church ministers, climb aboard -- should show up in Bakersfield to solemnize gay and straight nuptials for free, and for as long as Barnett's office won't -- the same way that civil rights activists went into the Deep South to register black voters when local officials wouldn't.

And what do you know -- maybe Bakersfield might become that gay mecca after all.


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