Merced clerk backtracks on no weddings

06/08/2008 2:55 AM

06/08/2008 2:56 AM

Less than a day after the Merced County clerk's office announced plans to stop performing marriages, it reversed course, declaring that it will continue to offer the service.

Merced County Auditor-Clerk Stephen Jones released a statement Thursday afternoon saying his office no longer would perform weddings, effective June 13, three days before a law allowing same sex marriages takes effect.

The statement said the clerk's office would continue to issue marriage licenses, including licenses to same sex couples starting June 17.

To exchange vows and solemnize their marriages, however, Jones' initial release said all couples would have to go elsewhere.

In an interview Friday morning, Jones said his decision to stop performing weddings wasn't made to avoid marrying same sex couples.

He said his decision is related to the state Supreme Court's decision to allow same sex marriage only in that the new law could increase demand for his office to perform weddings, a demand he said he worried that his office wouldn't be able to meet.

"This wasn't about my beliefs on the issue," Jones said.

Instead, he cited staffing and space shortages, saying his office no longer has the room or the people to perform marriages.

County offered to make room

On Friday afternoon, the Sun-Star obtained an e-mail that seemed to discount Jones' explanation that his office lacked space for marriage ceremonies.

Jones sent an e-mail Thursday morning to Dee Tatum, county chief executive officer, and the Board of Supervisors outlining his decision to stop performing weddings.

In his response, sent before Jones announced plans to stop performing marriages, Tatum wrote, "If space is a problem, then certainly we can make (room) 301 available and 310, as well as the board chambers when it is not in use."

Tatum added, "I would suggest before you take this step to see if this is legally defensible. I place no value on whether marriages are right or wrong or should be conducted or not. We, the organization, will certainly be asked why after all these years we have taken this step."

Late Friday afternoon, Jones said he had decided to retract his earlier announcement and that the clerk's office would continue to perform marriages.

He said again that his initial decision to stop performing weddings was not meant to avoid marrying same sex couples.

He then said that a number of his staff who regularly perform weddings had told him they didn't want to marry same sex couples, saying that had contributed to his original decision to stop conducting ceremonies.

Jones said his office has two clerks whose job duties include performing marriages. Eight to 10 employees whose job descriptions don't include weddings are deputized to perform them.

Jones said he felt comfortable asking clerks to marry same sex couples regardless of their beliefs, but that he decided that deputized employees, several of whom had told him they didn't want to perform same sex weddings, shouldn't be required to.

He said he rescinded his initial announcement after county administrators offered to provide more staff and space if needed.

County spokesman Mark Hendrickson said that offer had been made before Jones sent out the first release.

Hendrickson added, "Mr. Jones is an independently elected official who unilaterally sent out the announcement about ceasing to perform marriages."

Kern clerk won't do weddings

At least one other California county, Kern, announced plans last week to stop performing weddings.

Kern County Clerk Ann Barnett made that announcement Wednesday after she was advised by county lawyers that she could not refuse to perform marriages only for same sex couples, the Bakersfield Californian reported Thursday.

In a news release announcing her decision, Barnett cited staff and space shortages as reasons for no longer performing marriages.

Barnett had asked Kern County's lead attorney to file a brief with the California Supreme Court opposing the implementation of its May 15 ruling allowing gay marriage, the Californian reported.

Counties are mandated by law to issue marriage licenses. Performing weddings, however, is discretionary.

Some weddings take place at the Stanislaus County clerk's office. Lee Lundrigan, county clerk-recorder, said she does not expect to make any changes to those procedures. San Joaquin County does not perform or allow ceremonies at its clerk- recorder's office.

The Merced County clerk's office began performing marriages in the mid-1990s. Since then, the county has become one of the few places at which local couples can marry cheaply; a ceremony costs $40.

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