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Several Florida Clerks of Court Cease Marriage Ceremonies

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Lyn Echard, left, and Jo Posillico stand with Rev. Janet Onnie at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Marion County. The two have been together for 38 years and officially married on Jan. 10.

Wearing a floor-length gown, Jo Posillico walked down the aisle with her legal wife, Lyn Echard, who wore a black suit and matching off-white blouse.

Etta James’ “At Last” played in the background as a small congregation celebrated one of six same-sex marriage ceremonies that took place at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Marion County on Jan. 10.

The song was fitting for the couple. On Jan. 6, Florida joined 35 other states in allowing same-sex marriages, a decision Posillico and Echard waited 38 years for.

“It was the best day of my life,” Posillico said. “It was more special than I had planned it to be.”

While their ceremony ran smoothly, some same-sex couples in Florida have not been as fortunate. Florida’s clerk of court offices are now required to provide marriage licenses for same-sex couples after the same-sex marriage ban was lifted last month. Some, however, chose to stop performing marriage ceremonies altogether, forcing couples to find alternative options.

Marion County is one of many North Central Florida counties where clerk of court offices chose to stop offering marriage ceremonies. Offices in Duval, Clay, Bradford, Lake, Citrus, Baker and Pasco counties also discontinued their services.

Echard and Posillico have planned to get married at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship since December. They sympathized with couples who wanted to be wed by Marion County Clerk of the Circuit Court David Ellspermann before he discontinued his office’s marriage ceremony service in November.

Ellspermann said he chose to stop performing all marriage ceremonies — a service he said is not required by Florida Statute — after a conversation he had with staff members last summer before the same-sex marriage ban was lifted.

“Three of the individuals said that if and when it’s overturned, they had personal and religious convictions that would not allow them to perform the ceremony,” he said.

One employee added that she could not issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple due to religious beliefs and would resign should the decision be made by the court to lift the ban, Ellspermann said. That employee resigned on Jan. 5, the day before the ban was officially overturned.

Ellspermann referenced Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as historical reasoning for his choice to discontinue the service for both same and opposite-sex couples in Marion county courts. This section of the act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because of their color, sex, race, national origin or religion.

Worried that an employee would make a Title VII claim if he or she had to perform a ceremony against their religious beliefs, Ellspermann said he had to weigh his options: either give up the nearly $24,000 in revenue that marriage ceremonies bring in each year or surrender the $38,743 of combined benefits and salary for an employee if they were to resign. He said he chose the former for its cost-saving nature.

Regardless of the reason some clerks decided to stop performing all marriage ceremonies, same-sex marriage supporters throughout Florida have expressed disappointment in the choice to do so.

The Rev. Janet Onnie, who wed Posillico and Echard and five other couples for free on Jan. 10 to celebrate the lifted ban, said she was saddened by the clerks’ actions.

“It’s unfortunate,” Onnie said. “I’m not exactly sure that this is what Jesus would do.”

Baker County Clerk of Courts, Stacie Harvey, said her office stopped performing all marriage services on Jan. 1 because her “staff felt uncomfortable” about officiating same-sex marriages. Harvey added that her office would not offer the service as long as she is clerk.

The clerks’ actions have sparked local notary publics, such as Jacksonville attorney Jonathan Graessle, to offer their services free of charge for same-sex couples.

Graessle said he was embarrassed for the city of Jacksonville and disappointed with Fussell.

“On what was a joyous day for many couples who had waited years or decades for their relationships to be equally recognized, the clerk decided to make a petty, small-minded and hurtful political statement instead of just doing his job,” Graessle said.

Graessle said he is proud of the local legal community, which has been filling the void left by the clerk’s decision. He added that The Jacksonville Bar Association is forming a plan to restore courthouse weddings without involvement from the clerk’s office.

For same-sex couples in North Central Florida who still wish to get married by a clerk of courts, Alachua, Putnam and St. Johns counties offer the service, according to their respective clerks of court.

Though many Florida supporters of same-sex marriage are dissatisfied with their clerks of court, others, such as Jacksonville pastor Avery Garner, are focusing on the positives.

“The misguided actions of a few officials won’t overwhelm the light of this moment,” Garner said. “What they have done out of fear will be undone by justice, by love. Love wins out.”

About Victoria Messina

Victoria is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org

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