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The Mercury News


February 14, 2007





Some California licensing clerks join gay marriage fight



WOODLAND, Calif. - For a decade, it's been a predictable Valentine's Day ritual: same-sex couples across the nation show up at local government offices seeking marriage licenses only to be turned down - sometimes politely, sometimes not.


But the annual Freedom to Marry protests took on a slightly more hopeful hue Wednesday in some parts of Northern California, where gay and lesbian partners gained outspoken support from elected county clerks who lamented that state law forced them to say no.


"It's been on my conscience for a while, and I won't stand for it anymore," said Yolo County Clerk-Recorder Freddie Oakley, who decided to give a "Certificate of Inequality" to each same-sex couple who came to her counter this year. "This time, I'm standing up."


The strongly worded documents left no doubt on whose side Oakley stood.


"The State of California arrogates the right to limit your freedom to marry based on the gender of your chosen spouse," they read. "I issue this Certificate of Inequality to you because your choice of marriage partner displeases some people whose displeasure is, apparently, more important than principles of equality."

Receiving the hand-signed statement along with a few words of consolation from the smiling clerk herself took some of the sting out of engaging in the dispiriting Valentine's Day exercise, said Kathleen Luna, 46, and Claire Allen, 48, who have been together 21 years.


"It means the world to me that Freddie did this," Luna said. "Each year you think you're going to be immune to it, but you get up there and you break down in tears."

In San Mateo County, Clerk-Recorder Warren Slocum also rolled out the welcome mat at a pro-gay marriage rally his office co-hosted Wednesday. The more than 100 people who showed up were handed souvenir copies of a letter he wrote to every county clerk in the state asking them to join him in supporting a pending bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in California.


"As a 20-year elected official in San Mateo County, I have turned away many same-sex couples who have asked me to unite them in marriage," the letter states. "I think there is a better way that will eliminate the needless harm and financial burden our current law places on same-sex couples and their families."


Families headed by same-sex couples also were invited to sign a guest book and be photographed for a scrapbook that Slocum hopes will wind up in the collection of the local historical society, said spokeswoman Carol Marks.


Contra Costa County Clerk Stephen Weir, who is president of the California Association of Clerks and Elected Officials, said the group may consider a motion to formally endorse the legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. The Legislature narrowly approved a similar measure in 2005, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.


Weir, who is gay and has been with the same partner for 17 years, said he has learned to separate his personal life from his professional duties and therefore did not consider going out of his way to make a statement on Freedom to Marry Day.


Nevertheless, he often feels a pang when he sees smiling straight couples applying for marriage licenses at the office he oversees.


"I don't go by that office without thinking, 'Gee, someday maybe me,'" he said. "It's like being the registrar and not being able to register to vote."


About 40 people opposed to extending marriage rights to same-sex couples gathered outside the Yolo County government center to protest what they considered Oakley's abuse of her office. Allan Clemensen, director of the evangelical Christian group American Liberty Alliance of California, said he voted for Oakley's re-election in November, but probably wouldn't have if he had known her stand on same-sex marriage.


"She upholds the law, but she is using the building to promote her agenda, giving the facade that Yolo County supports this agenda," Clemensen said.

Oakley, 58, a mother of two adult daughters who been married for 37 years, said she has been inundated with unflattering e-mail since she announced she would be handing out the substitute certificates and considered the possibility that someone might start a recall election against her.


"If people hadn't stood up for women's rights 35, 40 years ago, I would not have the life I had," she said. "At some point, the principle has to be more important than personal comfort."


Shelly Bailes and her partner of 33 years, Ellen Pontac, said that having support from clerks like Oakley and Slocum in their corner meant a lot.


"We need straight allies," said Bailes, 65. "Gay people can't win this fight by ourselves."