By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - Wedding bells have stopped ringing in the courthouses of several northern Florida counties, where clerks opted to cease all marriage ceremonies rather than administer vows to gay couples when same-sex marriage becomes legal next week.
The vast majority of Florida clerks plan to marry same-sex couples starting on Jan. 6, after a stay expires on a federal court decision striking down the state's same-sex marriage ban.
But in at least five of the state's 67 counties, in conservative northern Florida, all ceremonies are off.
“The majority of my staff have a lot of Christian beliefs and I can’t force them to marry people,” said Stacie Harvey, clerk of court in Baker County, which stopped performing marriage ceremonies from Jan. 1.
In Jacksonville's Duval County, court clerk Ronnie Fussell stopped the practice as of the end of business Friday, telling the Jacksonville Times-Union newspaper that neither he nor his staff felt comfortable performing same-sex marriages.
“We find it pretty shocking that they are choosing to halt all marriages because they don’t want to do gay marriages,” said Sharon Kersten, spokeswoman for Equality Florida, a gay advocacy group.
The clerks that have ended their wedding ceremonies said they still will issue marriage licenses to gay couples, as ordered by a federal judge on New Year's Day.
Many made their decisions while awaiting direction from U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of Tallahassee about where in Florida gay couples could begin to tie the knot.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to extend a stay on Hinkle's decision, clearing Florida to become the 36th state where gay marriage is legal.
“I do not want to have members of our team put in a situation which presents a conflict between their personal religious beliefs and the implementation of a contentious societal philosophy change,” said Okaloosa County Clerk JD Peacock II in a memo, explaining his decision, effective Jan. 1.
A spokesman for the Santa Rosa County clerk said courthouses marriages ended there on Dec. 31 as part of a cost-cutting move.
Employees of Clay County’s clerk confirmed marriages had ended, but the clerk was unavailable for comment.
An emergency lawsuit seeking to stop gay marriage that had been filed by Florida Family Action, whose leaders had campaigned for the 2008 voter-approved ban, was dismissed by a state judge on Friday.
(Editing by Letitia Stein and Mohammad Zargham)