When New York became the latest state to allow same-sex marriage this summer, thousands rejoiced and thousands did not. But a few town clerks were suddenly faced with an inescapable moral and legal dilemma: They were opposed to gay marriage, but their job now required that they authorize them.
This was the predicament facing Rose Marie Belforti in Ledyard, a small town southwest of Auburn. She is the town clerk, one of six elected officials in the local government. She's a religious Christian, and if you call up her dairy farm, the Finger Lakes Dexter Creamery on Black Rock Road, her voice mail tells you "to have a blessed day."
Last month, Belforti sent a letter to the town board, explaining that she would not be signing marriage licenses for same-sex couples. She suggested that those jobs be assigned to a deputy. There is no deputy clerk in Ledyand, but it probably didn't seem so urgent. Fewer than 10 couples a year on average come in to be married.
Then on Aug. 30, a lesbian couple from Florida with a home in the county, Katie Carmichael and Deirdre DiBiaggio, walked into the office. Belforti allegedly told them that they would have to schedule an appointment, as there was no deputy present. It just so happened that Carmichael and DiBiaggio's witness, Arthur Bellinzoni, was on the board of the progressive advocacy group, People for the American Way Foundation.
Suddenly, sleepy Ledyard, home of less than 500 families, became a news story like it never imagined. On Wednesday, the Facebook page of Belforti's dairy farm had only one comment: "This cheese is great! My favorite is the bleu." More recent comments have a different tone: "Boycotting this place. I can't stand Homophobes."
Threat Of Lawsuit
People for the American Way and the law firm Proskauer Rose are now co-representing the couple as they pressure Belforti to do her job -- issue marriage licenses to couples who are eligible -- or resign. After all, a clerk's refusal to provide a license to an eligible applicant for any reason is a misdemeanor under New York state law, according to a July memo sent out by the state Department of Health.
"It's not up to government officials to decide that if they don't like the couple getting married they can make it more difficult for them," said Drew Courtney, a spokesman for People for the American Way. "She has a job to do. That job is to administer the paperwork and licenses of marriages in accordance with the state laws that govern it."
People for the American Way and Proskauer Rose sent a letter to Belforti and the town supervisor Mark Jordan before the board's regular Monday noon meeting, explaining that if Belforti didn't agree to issue same-sex licenses, or resign, then they might pursue legal action. The board was split, and Belforti told local media that she would be staying in her job.
Belforti is now administering no marriage licenses at all. Lenyard's Deputy Supervisor Jim Frisch told The Advocate that this was a short-term attempt to live up to "the spirit of the law." The couple's co-council weren't satisfied, and People for the American Way launched a petition demanding that Belforti authorize all marriage licenses or leave her post. They're still considering a lawsuit. Change.org has launched in its own petition, asking that Belforti be fired. Frisch claims that the board has no power to force Belforti, an elected official, out of the job. She'll be up for reelection in November.
Duty vs. Religious Beliefs
Some Christian groups, however, do not believe public officials should have to perform a duty that violates their personal religious beliefs.
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"In this country we have a number of laws that allow for an accommodation for other Americans, an accommodation of their religious practices, like Title VII, or physical disability, like the Americans With Disabilities Act," said Bruce Hausknecht, a judicial analyst for Citizen Link, the public policy affiliate of Focus on the Family. "It seemed that out of this issue came a call to punish as opposed to accommodate."
New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, an evangelical lobby which filed suit against the State Senate over the summer, after the same-sex marriage law was passed, claims that state law demands the accommodation of religious observances and practices. The group is connecting Belforti with legal support.
One parallel to this debate is the "conscience clauses" that first appeared in the American law books after Roe v. Wade passed in 1973. In some states, doctors and health care providers are allowed to refuse to perform or assist in abortions, hospitals can prohibit them on their premises, and pharmacists are allowed to refuse to provide emergency contraception. This kind of exception in civil law does not exist right now for gay marriages, although marriage equality legislation in Connecticut and New Hampshire explicitly mentions that clergy and religious organizations do not have to solemnize or celebrate same-sex unions.
"People for the American Way are dedicated to religious freedom," said Courtney. "We're not talking about religious belief. Her church can believe whatever her church wants. But when it comes to civil marriages, civil laws, if she doesn't want to follow the laws on the books she can get another job."
Even without appealing to particular religious protections, there's a possibility that Belforti is within her legal rights. "There's a question as to whether she's breaking the law in New York," said Hausknecht. "A state statute in New York allows individuals to delegate any duty to a deputy." Before this option is considered, however, Ledyard would need to hire one.
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