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Stung by furor over halt in civil weddings

Times Staff Writer

Ann Barnett says she’s always tried to do the right thing, whether for her church, her five children, her husband of 31 years or the people she serves as Kern County’s elected clerk and auditor-controller.

So she’s bewildered by the anger that’s come her way since she decided -- just before gay marriages become legal -- to stop holding all civil weddings at her county offices.

On Thursday, she appeared stung by critics who have labeled her a “religious terrorist” and called for her resignation; by the hate mail that has flooded her office; by the unceasing requests for interviews, so many that she has unplugged her home phone.

“I’m just a county clerk trying to do my job,” said the tall and soft-spoken 53-year-old, dressed in business attire, hands folded primly on her lap. “I wasn’t out to make a statement.”

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But critics say Barnett is not doing her job -- at least not fully.

Though her office will hand out marriage licenses to same-sex couples beginning Tuesday as required by law, her decision to stop offering low-cost civil ceremonies to any couples ends a practice that Kern County clerks have provided for decades.

Critics say her ban on wedding ceremonies will hit the county’s poorest residents hardest. They believe she has imposed her religious beliefs on a state office, penalizing the downtrodden in the process.

Barnett does not say she made the decision for religious reasons. But if she did, she would seem to be in step with Kern County’s conservative electorate, 80% of whom favored Proposition 22’s ban on gay marriage in 2000.

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Whitney Wedell, a leader in Bakersfield’s small but close-knit gay community, acknowledged that gay men and lesbians face an uphill battle finding acceptance in the county. But she said that shouldn’t give an elected official license to sidestep the law.

Anyway, Wedell said, Barnett’s decision won’t stop gay marriage in Kern County.

“She is required to hand out licenses, so she will be making these marriages happen whether she likes it nor not,” said Wedell, who plans to marry her partner of two years Tuesday on a shaded patio just outside the clerk’s office.

“If it really bothers her conscience, she might want to consider stepping down,” Wedell said.

About two dozen ministers have volunteered to marry people -- gay and straight -- for free Tuesday outside the clerk’s office.

Barnett won’t address whether her Christian beliefs played a role in her announcement last week. She has said she made the decision for budgetary reasons and because of security concerns. But she acknowledges that she is being represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian law firm that is spearheading the fight against gay marriage.

She also says the church has played a central role in her life, from her upbringing on a turkey farm near Modesto to her life as suburban mom and elected official in Bakersfield.

“It affects everything,” she said. “It affects who I am.”

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Barnett said she moved to Bakersfield in the mid-1970s to begin a career as an accountant. She met and married Dan Barnett, and together they managed several rental properties across Bakersfield.

The couple have raised a family that started with three adopted children and, in her late 30s, expanded to include two biological children. She called her later-in-life pregnancies a blessing.

“That’s when God gave them to us,” she said.

Barnett was hired by the county auditor-controller’s office 22 years ago and worked her way up to division chief. In 2002, when the former auditor-controller decided to step down, Barnett ran unopposed for his position.

Now she’s in her second term, managing a staff of 90 with a budget of about $13 million.

It’s a demanding job that requires a lot of at-home help from her husband, Barnett said -- especially with three sons and two daughters who range in age from 12 to 22.

Pastor Dave Champness of the RiverLakes Community Church has known the Barnetts for two decades.

“They are great people,” he said. “They’ve worked in our nursery for years helping out with the kids. They have always been gracious, kind and compassionate people.”

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Champness said Barnett feels “some conflict” with her new job duties but is doing the best she can. He said same-sex weddings are a problem for the church because they redefine the biblical interpretation of marriage.

“God designed us in his image,” Champness said. “And he designed marriage for man and woman.”

Insiders at Kern County’s administrative center say Barnett has generally done a good job managing her divisions. She has a competent staff and had kept a low profile until the recent attention arose, they say.

Barnett initially said her decision to stop the weddings was based on budget constraints and a lack of staff. On Thursday, she said her primary concern was office security because the county’s two wedding chapels are inside the elections division, which Barnett also supervises.

“It’s not roped off or anything, so people could wander into restricted areas,” she said.

But her critics say the facts contradict her explanations. Just 26 couples had requested appointments for marriage licenses by Thursday, Wedell said. And numbers are expected to fall off after the first-day rush, she said.

Travis Green, 37, and Courtney Shields, 24, both of Taft, were among the last to say their vows this week in a civil ceremony at the clerk’s office.

The license plus the wedding ceremony costs less than $100 -- a great deal for Green, who is looking for work, and his new wife, a cashier at McDonald’s.

“I don’t think it’s right,” Green said of Barnett’s decision.

As for gay marriage, he said, “If it makes people happy, then so be it. You can’t help who you fall in love with.”

Kern County Supervisor Don Maben said county staff is looking for solutions, such as bringing in deputized officiants from adjacent counties or giving Barnett more money to run her department.

“She should have come to the board and said, ‘What can we do to fix this problem?’ ” said Maben, a vocal critic of Barnett. “Instead she made a unilateral decision and just shut everyone off.”

Barnett’s action, Maben said, could reinforce old stereotypes about Bakersfield, the county’s capital and largest city.

Former “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson often made Bakersfield the butt of jokes about “hicks from the sticks,” he said.

That image died away in recent years as Bakersfield added thousands of new, higher-end homes and attracted Los Angeles refugees, Maben said. The city has sought to broaden its cultural identity with a new sports arena and a gentrifying downtown sporting hip new clubs and eateries.

“We’ve gotten away from those stereotypes,” Maben said. “But now it looks like we’re fodder for Jay Leno.”

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catherine.saillant@ latimes.com


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