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June 10, 2008


By Mike Swift



Few balk at same-sex vows



Eunice Brabec, a 69-year-old volunteer wedding official from South San Francisco, didn't feel right about performing a marriage of two men or two women.


"I think that marriage is between a man and woman to have children," said Brabec, one of two volunteer marriage commissioners in San Mateo County who decided to stop doing weddings to avoid doing same-sex ceremonies.


Elsewhere in California, at least one county clerk-recorder is suspending wedding ceremonies for all couples rather than do same-sex marriages starting June 17. But despite occasional protests, many Bay Area county clerks are hearing from a crop of volunteers who want to help officiate same-sex ceremonies.


Santa Clara County got so many, it is having a special training session for about 70 people in San Jose on Wednesday.


"They called the office and said they wanted to help us out," said Regina Alcomendras, clerk-recorder for Santa Clara County. "I didn't anticipate that much response."


A study released Monday by the Williams Institutethink tank predicts nearly 120,000 same-sex weddings in California during the next three years, with about 68,000 couples coming from out of state. That would pump $684 million into the state's wedding industry and create more than 2,000 jobs, said the institute, which studies sexual orientation and public policy at thelaw school at the University of California-Los Angeles.


Those projections, of course, hinge on whether California voters back an initiative in November that would ban same-sex marriage. The difference in how local governments have reacted to same-sex weddings hints at a cultural divide that will be a central part of that campaign, between the more liberal Bay Area and more conservative parts of the state, such as the Central Valley.


"There's a little geographic divide in the discussion," said Stephen Weir, president of the California Association of Clerks & Election Officials and the clerk-recorder for Contra Costa County. "But when it comes down to the actual day of implementation, I think you're going to see no disparity among anyone in the state."


Counties are mandated only to issue marriage licenses under the dictates of state law, but many counties also perform marriage ceremonies as a public service and as a source of revenue.


The clerk-recorder in Kern County, Ann Barnett, announced that the county will suspend marriage ceremonies for everyone - gay or straight - as of Friday, saying the county "will not have the staff or space to deal with an increase in both licenses and ceremonies."


Barnett cited "budgetary reasons" in her notice on Kern County's Web site, but an internal memo between one of Barnett's top officials and a conservative Christian legal defense fund, published in the Bakersfield Californian, suggests moral beliefs may also have played a role. Barnett did not return a phone call from the Mercury News on Monday.


While San Mateo County had two deputy marriage commissioners withdraw - citing reasons of principle - officials in Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa counties say neither paid staff nor volunteer deputies have asked to be excused from performing gay weddings.


In fact, San Mateo, Santa Clara and other Bay Area counties have seen a jump in people calling to volunteer to do same-sex ceremonies.


"We don't feel we need additional volunteers at this time," said Theresa Rabe, of San Mateo County's office of the assessor-county clerk-recorder and chief elections officer. She expects to be "a little busier than usual" on June 17.


Santa Clara County is bracing for a busy week of nuptials. The county's wedding chapel in San Jose is already 85 percent booked, with about 15 weddings scheduled June 17. Alcomendras has designated two conference rooms in the county offices as temporary overflow venues.


In Contra Costa County, "we are getting reservations into September, but I'm thinking this is going to tail off after a week or two," Weir said.


The Contra Costa clerk-recorder has a unique perspective on the beginning of gay marriage ceremonies. He won't personally officiate at any same-sex weddings June 17. Instead, he's renting a park across the street from the county offices in Martinez, where he'll marry his partner, John Hemm.


"I do have a dual capacity," Weir said. "But not that day."


Santa Clara County has used paid staff, not volunteers, to perform wedding ceremonies. Alcomendras said no one on the staff has asked to be excused from doing gay or lesbian wedding ceremonies.


"We're gearing up toward really a very heavy amount of traffic next week," Alcomendras said. "I may be wrong, but we're gearing for it."