Florida court officials, citing confusion after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to extend a stay on the state's same-sex marriage ban, agreed on Monday to ask a federal judge to clarify where gay couples may begin to tie the knot next month.
When the stay expires after Jan. 5, it is unclear if weddings are permitted beyond the one county in northern Florida that was named in the case appealed to the high court.
On a conference call on Monday, the state's clerks of court were "close to unanimous" in agreement that same-sex marriages would become legal only in rural Washington County, said Bob Inzer, the clerk in Leon County in Tallahassee.
The ruling "does not apply to the clerks of the state’s other 66 counties," agreed Ronnie Fussell, the clerk in Duval County in Jacksonville, noting in a statement that clerks could face a fine and jail time for issuing marriage licenses in violation of state law.
Florida's clerks plan to seek guidance from U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of Florida's Northern District, who in August became the first federal judge to strike down the same-sex marriage ban approved by state voters in 2008, Inzer said.
Gay marriage advocates warned that counties will be hit by costly lawsuits if they refuse to issue licenses when Hinkle's order takes effect early next year.
"Clerks can stand in the doorway and try to block equality, or they can welcome gay couples who have waited for decades for this moment," said Nadine Smith, chief executive officer of Equality Florida, an advocacy group.
The high court's order, issued on Friday, would make Florida the 36th U.S. states to have legal gay marriage.
Concerns about "uniformity throughout Florida" were cited by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who asked the Supreme Court to extend the stay while various cases make their way through the appeals process in different states and federal circuits.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented from the decision of the other justices to deny Bondi's request.
(Editing by Letitia Stein and Mohammad Zargham)