Local counties to end courthouse weddings to avoid marrying gays

Couples who wanted to skip the pomp and circumstance of a wedding and get married at the Duval, Clay or Baker county courthouses will no longer have that option in the new year.

These counties' decision to end the long-standing tradition of courthouse wedding ceremonies is due, at least in part, to the continued debate over same-sex marriage in Florida against the backdrop of conservative Christianity. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle could rule any day and make gay marriage legal across the state.

If same-sex marriage is allowed, Duval Clerk of Courts Ronnie Fussell, Clay Clerk Tara Green and Baker Clerk Stacie Harvey will have no choice but to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. But to avoid performing ceremonies for them, these clerks have decided to end all courthouse weddings.

The clerks said multiple factors contributed to the decision to end courthouse weddings, with gay marriage being just one of them. And they now said the new policies will take effect no matter what the courts decide about gay marriage.

Fussell says the decision came after a series of discussion with members of his staff who currently officiate wedding ceremonies. None of them, including Fussell, felt comfortable doing gay weddings so they decided to end the practice all together, he said.

"It was decided as a team, as an office, this would be what we do so that there wouldn't be any discrimination," Fussell said. "The easiest way is to not do them at all."

Equality Florida co-founder and chief executive Nadine Smith was shocked to hear that certain counties would stop allowing courthouse wedding because of the possibility that gay couples would want to use the service.

"I think it would be outrageous for clerks to change the rules simply because gay couples are getting married," she said.

Smith, an advocate for gay and lesbian rights, predicted the policy change would backfire and be characterized as spiteful and mean.

There were 1,911 wedding ceremonies performed at the Duval County Courthouse in 2013, compared to 6,342 marriage licenses issued. About 330 Clay County couples are married at its courthouse each year, and Baker averages about 30.

Clerks of courts in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties in the Panhandle also made similar announcements that they were ending courthouse ceremonies.

Nassau County Clerk of Courts John Crawford has not responded to a request about any changes there.

The clerks of courts in St. Johns and Putnam counties said they will continue to offer courthouse weddings, even if gay marriage becomes legal.

"Everything will remain the same," said George Lareau, St. Johns County's chief deputy clerk of courts.

Putnam County Clerk of Courts Tim Smith said he will allow individual members of his staff who feel uncomfortable with gay marriage to decline to perform those ceremonies, but no one has said they will take him up on the offer.

"They still can have a marriage ceremony here, and one of our staff will not be in an uncomfortable position if that is their belief," he said.

Fussell, a former Jacksonville City Council president, attends a Southern Baptist church and said he has considered how to handle the conflict between his personal views and professional duties that gay marriage created. He said he believes lesbians and gays should be defended and protected, but not allowed to marry.

"I believe marriage is between a man and a woman," he said. "Personally it would go against my beliefs to perform a ceremony that is other than that."

Only through Friday, couples can get married at the Duval County courthouse for $30 in addition to the $93.50 fee for a marriage license.

Last Valentine's Day, Fussell personally officiated a mass wedding for 12 couples in the courthouse rotunda. He waived the ceremony fee, and local businesses gave each bride flowers and a cupcake reception.

With the possibility that he would be forced to include gay couples who wanted to participate this year, he and his staff decided there will be no weddings under the dome or in the "wedding arbor" room that is most often used for these ceremonies.

Residents of Baker, Clay and Duval counties who want to avoid usual wedding expenses will now have to find a minister or notary to perform the ceremony after they pick up their marriage license, but a place other than the courthouse.

Baker Clerk Harvey said the decision is as much about logistics as it is personal conviction. The room where weddings are performed each year will now be used as space for people filling out paperwork related to domestic violence injunctions.

"I needed the space and our county we're in the Bible Belt," she said. "... If we're made by the law to issue a gay marriage license (we will) do that, but we are not mandated to marry couples in our courthouse."

Harvey said there are members of her staff who would be uncomfortable performing same-sex weddings and she did not want to force them. She said she doesn't feel comfortable performing weddings at all, gay or straight, and hasn't officiated a ceremony in years.

Justin Horan, general counsel for the Clay County clerk of courts, said the debate over gay marriage accelerated discussions on whether to end courthouse weddings.

"Really it just expedited our evaluation on whether to continue to offer marriage ceremonies," he said. "We had been talking about it for several months now."

In addition to ending weddings, the Clay courthouse will no longer allow residents applying for passports to take their photos there. Once a new web-based system launches, people also won't be able to purchase foreclosed properties at the courthouse.

"We felt that it was appropriate for us to focus on other services that the clerk offers," Horan said.

Tia Mitchell: (850) 933-1321


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