On June 26, marriage equality became the law of the land when the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Though the nation celebrated, it was a largely symbolic victory in many states like Florida, where same-sex marriage was legalized earlier this year.
Northeast Florida, however, is another story altogether.
Duval County clerks stopped officiating weddings on Jan. 5, the day that same-sex marriages were first performed in Florida. Many clerks had made similar threats but, out of 67 counties, only three followed through: Duval, Clay and Baker. To date, none has plans to resume offering this service.
“These clerks are taking the wrong stance … they are standing on the wrong side of history on this one while they are withholding a service that they should have provided,” says Hannah Willard, of LGBT advocacy organization Equality Florida.
At the time the courthouse decided to stop officiating weddings, the Florida Times-Union reported that Duval County Clerk of Courts Ronnie Fussell suggested he was guided by religious convictions. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” he told the T-U. “Personally, it would go against my beliefs to perform a ceremony that is other than that.”
He also said there wasn’t one member of his staff who would feel comfortable officiating same-sex marriages.
“If he had a problem with gay marriage, then [he had] the power to hire someone that has no problem with it and they can perform the services … ,” former City Council candidate James Eddy says. Eddy also points out that construction of a wedding chapel was specifically and intentionally included in the $350 million courthouse that arches into the Downtown skyline.
But Fussell has changed his tune in recent months. Now Duval County clerks don’t officiate weddings because, apparently, it’s just too dang expensive.
On the day marriage equality became law in America, WOKV reported that Duval County Clerk of Courts’ Chief Operating Officer Derek D. Igou said courthouse marriage services were costing the taxpayers $60,000 annually. When Folio Weekly contacted Igou, he corrected his previous statement. “I think I looked at the net the other day … [it costs] closer to $26,000 or $27,000.”
Public records provided to Folio Weekly state that for FY2012 — the last full fiscal year Duval County clerks officiated weddings — the Marriage Department’s budgetary deficit was $42,933.63. This fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, already has a projected budgetary deficit of more than twice that, $117,207.44.
It turns out that the 1,998 marriage ceremonies — which cost $30 per couple — performed by clerks in FY2014 generated nearly $60,000 of revenue. The budgetary deficit next year will likely be even higher because between Oct. 1, 2014 and Jan. 2, 2015 — the last day clerks officiated weddings — those ceremonies generated $10,470 in revenue.
The claim has also been made that this was on the table long before same-sex marriage was legalized. “People are not believing it was true … [But] discussions were going on three to four months before,” Igou says.
There is no reason to doubt that statement. U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle overturned Florida’s same-sex marriage ban on Aug. 21, 2014. The decision did not go into effect until four months later.
Mr. Igou also says that officiating weddings interfered with clerks’ other duties, such as filing marriage licenses.
Igou says that the courthouse wedding chapel remains available to anyone who would like to get married there, as long as they provide their own officiant.
As much criticism as Fussell has weathered in this matter, it is easy to imagine that even he has grown weary of the topic. Unless he reverses his decision, however, it will come up again and again when he runs for re-election in 2016. Perhaps he would have better served his own interests and those of the citizens of Duval County by following the example of Nassau County Clerk of Courts & Comptroller John A. Crawford who, in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage, the county’s website quotes as saying:
“For as long as anyone can remember, legally-eligible couples making application for either a license to marry or requesting that the clerk’s office perform a civil wedding ceremony have been provided those services with dignity, professionalism and utmost courtesy in Nassau County. I believe that as a constitutional officer and as an officer of the court, it is my duty to uphold both the letter and the spirit of the law, to serve every citizen who lawfully seeks our services.”