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.
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!"
Another arena in which rights of religious conscience are coming into conflict with the state support of same sex marriage.