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Fla. counties stop courthouse weddings to avoid gay ceremonies

A federal judge ruled New Year's Day that clerks in all 67 Florida counties have a constitutional obligation to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

By Frances Burns
Same-sex marriage supporters rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as the Court hears arguments on same-sex marriage, in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 2013. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on Califonia's ban on same-sex marriage. UPI/Kevin Dietsch
Same-sex marriage supporters rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as the Court hears arguments on same-sex marriage, in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 2013. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on Califonia's ban on same-sex marriage. UPI/Kevin Dietsch | License Photo

TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Jan. 2 (UPI) -- At least three Florida county clerks say they will no longer hold courthouse weddings now that a judge has ordered the state to recognize same-sex marriage.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 ruling overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act has led to successful legal challenges to gay marriage bans with same-sex weddings now legal in many conservative states.

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U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled Thursday that his order to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples applies to all 67 Florida counties. He said it was not his preliminary injunction that was binding on county clerks but the U.S. Constitution.

Hinkle warned county clerks they could face lawsuits if they refuse to issue marriage licenses.

RELATED U.S. Supreme Court OKs same-sex marriage in Florida

Same-sex couples could begin getting licenses Tuesday. State Attorney General Pam Bondi, an opponent of gay marriage, said Florida would not try to stop the process.

Clerks in Duval, Baker and Clay counties said that both heterosexual and same-sex couples will no longer be able to get married at the courthouse. Ronnie Fussell, the clerk in Duval County, said neither he nor members of his staff want to marry same-sex couples, even if they are legally required to issue licenses to them.

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

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Nadine Smith, a founder of Equality Florida, predicted that counties that stop all courthouse weddings will hurt their own images.

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

The three counties are neighbors near the Georgia border in the conservative northern part of the state. Clerks in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties in the Panhandle are taking a similar position.

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George Lareau, deputy clerk in St. Johns County, which borders Clay and Duval, said the shift on gay weddings will make no difference, with all couples begin accommodated who want to marry in the courthouse. Putnam County Clerk Tim Smith said no one on his staff will be compelled to perform same-sex marriages if that violates their beliefs but he added no one so far has said they want to opt out.

"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," Smith said.

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