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As gay marriage approaches, several counties' clerks opt out of wedding ceremonies

William Lee Jones, left, and Aaron Huntsman, center, receive marriage license application paperwork Friday at the Monroe County Courthouse in Key West. At right is Amy Heavilin, Monroe's clerk of the court. Jones and Huntsman are planning on receiving their license just after midnight Monday, and getting married immediately afterwards. [AP photo]
Published Jan. 3, 2015

As gay marriage comes to Florida, Pasco County's clerk of court is among a growing number of clerks who are refusing to hold courthouse marriage ceremonies.

Rather than extend the practice to gay couples, they are ending it entirely.

From as far west as Santa Rosa County to as far east as Duval County, much of North Florida is opting out. But in the Tampa Bay area, home to the largest gay pride celebration in the southeastern United States, only the Pasco clerk has chosen that route.

"It was an easy decision to make," Clerk of Court Paula O'Neil said.

Some of her rationale was financial: Pasco is experiencing a construction boom, generating extra work for her employees. But there were personal and religious components as well. Most of her staff who handle marriage licenses were "uncomfortable" officiating same-sex weddings, she said.

"The problem is we can't discriminate," she said. "So there are some people who would have wanted to transfer to another area, and we can't transfer everybody."

Pasco's new policy began on Oct. 1, months after a federal judge struck down Florida's same-sex marriage ban but before his ruling took effect. Gay couples who wish to be married can get licenses, O'Neil said, but they have to find their own officiants.

As of Tuesday, the first day gay couples are permitted to wed, there will be large celebrations and ceremonies in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Key West. In Hillsborough County, Clerk of Court Pat Frank said that if her office is overwhelmed with couples hoping to marry, she will hold a large wedding in a downtown Tampa park at noon. She plans to waive the marital counseling class for those who want to be married on the same day they get their license.

Same-sex couples should not expect the same enthusiastic reception statewide. To comply with the judge's ruling, clerks have said they will issue marriage licenses. But in recent weeks and months, the majority of clerks in the conservative Panhandle have chosen to stop performing courthouse weddings.

Some said their offices were too cramped and they had too few employees to continue the tradition. Others blamed shrinking budgets that forced them to shift resources.

"Being a very small county, our staff numbers are very low and workload is quite high," said Holmes County Clerk of Court Kyle Hudson. "Therefore, we will not be performing ceremonies for any couples, regardless of sexual preference."

Nearly all of them have changed their policies since August, when U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of Tallahassee ruled the state's gay marriage ban unconstitutional.

Several clerks, including Okaloosa County's J.D. Peacock II, have acknowledged that Hinkle's decision played a major role in their decisions.

"I do not want to have members of our team put in a situation which presents a conflict between their personal religious beliefs and the implementation of a contentious societal philosophy change," Peacock wrote recently in a memo to his staff.

Although there is no authoritative list of the Florida counties that have stopped offering courthouse weddings, the counties that confirmed their decisions to the Tampa Bay Times and other news outlets include: Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Holmes, Washington, Jackson, Calhoun, Liberty, Franklin, Wakulla, Baker, Clay, Duval and Pasco.

According to Bay County's website, it no longer offers marriage ceremonies, though it is unclear when that policy was changed. The clerk of court did not respond to a request for comment.

"They're not required to perform the marriages, so they can bow out," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public policy at Florida State University. But clerks are elected officials, he said, and they know the danger of taking an unpopular stance.

In 2008, when 62 percent of Floridians approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, the measure received overwhelming support in the northern part of the state and the Panhandle. In some counties, more than 80 percent of voters approved it.

"The constitutional officers usually get re-elected without any problem at all," deHaven-Smith said. "But social and religious and moral issues can attract a lot of attention. If something stood out, that could cause them to lose re-election."

There are outliers in the north — Escambia, Leon, Jefferson, and Madison counties — where clerks say they are committed to performing ceremonies for all couples, gay or straight.

"I think it's going to be a super Valentine's Day," Escambia County Clerk of Court Pam Childers said. "We're expecting a huge influx next Tuesday."

Childers' offices have been deluged with phone calls from gay couples in Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana who are eager to exchange vows in Florida.

Rather than asking her employees if they were comfortable marrying gay couples, Childers said she flipped the question and asked for volunteers who wanted to help out.

"It really hasn't become an issue, we haven't made it issue," she said.

Many questions remain about how state agencies will respond to Judge Hinkle's ruling. On Friday, agencies that oversee driver's licenses, state retirement programs and other benefits declined to say whether they would amend existing policies to recognize gay couples married in other states as well as those who are married next week.

Late Friday, Gov. Rick Scott's office distributed a one-line statement: "We are working with our agencies to follow the court's decision," it said.


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