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New York Town Clerk Refusing To Issue Marriage Licenses To Same-Sex Couples

A town clerk in upstate New York is trying to argue that she should have the right to refuse to comply with the state’s law legalizing same-sex marriage:

Rose Marie Belforti is a 57-year-old cheese maker, the elected town clerk in this sprawling Finger Lakes farming community and a self-described Bible-believing Christian. She believes that God has condemned homosexuality as a sin, so she does not want to sign same-sex marriage licenses; instead, she has arranged for a deputy to issue all marriage licenses by appointment.

But when a lesbian couple who own a farm near here showed up at the town hall last month, the women said they were unwilling to wait.

Now Ms. Belforti is at the heart of an emerging test case, as national advocacy groups look to Ledyard for an answer to how the state balances a religious freedom claim by a local official against a civil rights claim by a same-sex couple.

Ms. Belforti, represented by a Christian legal advocacy group based in Arizona, the Alliance Defense Fund, is arguing that state law requires New York to accommodate her religious beliefs.

“New York law protects my right to hold both my job and my beliefs,” she said in an interview last week, pausing briefly to collect $50 from a resident planning to take 20 loads of refuse to the town dump. “I’m not supposed to have to leave my beliefs at the door at my government job.”

But the couple, Deirdre DiBiaggio and Katie Carmichael of Miami, are arguing that the law requires all clerks in New York to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The couple are being represented by a liberal advocacy organization, People for the American Way, based in Washington.

“Gay people have fought so long and hard to get these civil rights,” said Ms. Carmichael, 53, a filmmaker. “To have her basically telling us to get in the back of the line is just not acceptable.”

Ms. Belforti is one of several town clerks who have said the state’s Marriage Equality Act, the measure approved in June that legalized same-sex marriage in New York, violates their religious beliefs. Two clerks resigned in July rather than comply with the law.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, who made same-sex marriage a priority of his first year in office, has expressed little sympathy for clerks who object to the law. “When you enforce the laws of the state, you don’t get to pick and choose,” he said this summer. And the State Health Department issued a memorandum to clerks that refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples would be a misdemeanor.\

(…)

A Protestant who worships at several area churches, Ms. Belforti read to a reporter a passage from the first chapter of Romans, which she says condemns homosexual activity, offering it as an explanation for her stance.

“This is about religious freedom,” she said. “This is not about trashing gay people.”

The religious freedom argument is patently ridiculous. Belforti is an elected official charged with administrative duties related to the operation of the Town’s government. One of those duties includes the issuance of marriage licenses to all persons who legally qualify for the same under New York law and, as of June of this year, that includes same-sex couples. Ms. Belforti can no more refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples than she could refuse to issue licenses for cats because she doesn’t like cats. Or, to put it more bluntly, she can no more refuse to issue a marriage license to a legally qualified same-sex couple than she could refuse to issue a license to a legally qualified mixed race couple. She has a job to do, the law sets for how she’s supposed to do it. She cannot simply refuse to act and them claim to be exercising her “religious freedom.”

Belforti has two options if she doesn’t want to issue the licenses herself. Under New York law she can delegate the responsibility to a deputy. Or, she can resign her office. What she’s doing now is little more than grandstanding.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Boyd says:

    …she can delegate the responsibility to a deputy.

    What she’s doing now is little more than grandstanding.

    In the news story you quoted, they state the clerk delegated the responsibility to a deputy. But you say it’s grandstanding. I understand there might be some nuance you omitted, Doug, but first you specifically say what she’s doing is one of her options under New York state law, and then you say by doing so, she’s grandstanding.

    Why don’t you say that the lesbian couple is grandstanding by not accepting the “make an appointment with my deputy and get your license” option?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 5

  2. MBunge says:

    @Boyd: “Why don’t you say that the lesbian couple is grandstanding by not accepting the “make an appointment with my deputy and get your license” option?”

    I think the point is that she should permenently assign the responsiblity to a deputy who’s equally available to everyone. Only doing that in some cases at an inconvenience to people who want to get married is where the grandstanding comes in.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  3. Vast Variety says:

    @Boyd: If you were getting married to a woman and a Town Clerk told you that she wouldn’t sign your license due to her religion and that you had to make an appointment with her deputy wouldn’t it make you a little pissed off and give you the impression that you weren’t being treated equally?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  4. Boyd says:

    @MBunge and @Vast Variety: I’m not saying those aren’t valid points. In fact, I’m taking care not to even bring up my opinion on the matter, because for the purposes of my objection, it’s irrelevant.

    But Doug says that what she’s doing is one of her two options under state law (and I’ll point out that he said nothing about the appointment issue or the availability of the deputy), then accuses her of grandstanding. I’m saying that’s an illogical rationale.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  5. @Boyd:

    If she’s assigning to a deputy who isn’t readily available then she’s not complying with the spirit of the law to say the very least, and possibly not with the letter. The woman gets paid $20,000 a year to sign pieces of paper, she should get off her high horse and do her job.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 3

  6. Boyd says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Without having even read the law, it seems that you’re drawing your conclusion without sufficient information. The New York Marriage Equality Act says [PDF], in essence, that same sex couples can’t be treated differently from opposite sex couples. The news story you linked and quoted says that the town clerk “has arranged for a deputy to issue all marriage licenses by appointment.” [emphasis added] Her reason for doing this is because of her objection to same sex marriage, but it appears that all couples seeking a marriage license in her town are treated the same: make an appointment with her deputy.

    So it looks to me as though a certain Virginia attorney is the one who needs to get off his high horse and understand the facts of the situation as well as the law before he starts condemning town clerks in other states.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  7. @Boyd:

    Not so fast there, because then the question becomes whether she has made reasonable alternative arrangements. Where is this deputy located? How often does she make appointments? These are the questions the lawsuit will deal with.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  8. Boyd says:

    @Doug Mataconis: As far as we know, because it’s so stated in the NYT story, the conditions are the same for all couples, regardless of their sexual orientation. But you’re going to leap to the conclusion that it’s discriminatory, without having any indication that there are discriminatory practices? Interesting.

    I should point out that I find it hard to believe that they NYT knew of couples being treated differently because of their sexual orientation, and yet failed to include a single example in their story.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  9. All we know is “by appointment” if this deputy is only available once every two weeks I would think the argument would be that this person is not taking reasonable measures to make sure that her duties are being performed in her stead.

    Of course, we could also talk about how full of nonsense her “religious freedom” argument is………

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  10. samwide says:

    She has less than a leg to stand on. She’s not being asked to perform the marriage, merely to issue a legal document required by the state of New York. Her refusal to issue said document to people entitled by law — in fact, demanded by the state — to receive it is a dereliction of her duty as an elected magistrate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  11. Hey Norm says:

    Um…it really doesn’t seem very christian of her.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 1

  12. DJ says:

    “Um…it really doesn’t seem very christian of her.”

    Um, that’s not really a meaningful statement. There are as many different definitions of what’s “christian” as there are people whose hobby is criticizing Christians. In any case, members of various religions – Christianity included – have often opposed their governments when they felt they were being coerced into performing duties that violated their consciences. This woman’s personal stance is hardly at variance with the prevailing attitude toward sexuality within Christianity, whether considered geographically or historically, and her response to the change in the law does not even amount to civil disobedience at this point but is rather a form of mild protest. From that standpoint, this is really a non-story, though it will be interesting to see how the legal battle plays out.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  13. de stijl says:

    @DJ:

    This self described Bible-believing Christian is not rendering unto Caesar. That she is under the employ of the modern day equivalent of Caesar is just icing on top of the irony cake.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  14. I have no problem with gay marriage, I think marriage is bullshit anyway. They want to be together so the F what, with that being said, the state needs to be removed from marriage entirely.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  15. Boyd says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I’m not a lawyer, nor did I sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I have been watching lawyer shows on TV since Perry Mason 50 years ago.

    That being said, “I object, Your Honor. The Prosecutor is assuming facts without any evidence having been presented.”

    All we know is “by appointment” if this deputy is only available once every two weeks I would think the argument would be that this person is not taking reasonable measures to make sure that her duties are being performed in her stead.

    Which is the same for all couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, so you’re accusing the town clerk of discriminating against same sex couples without any…any…evidence that any discrimination has taken place.

    Deal with reality, lawyer-man.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  16. Moderate Mom says:

    @MBunge: She has assigned her deputy responsibility for issuing ALL marriage licenses. Gay, Straight, Mixed Race, Whatever – everyone is treated exactly the same. Make a appointment with the Deputy Clerk and get you license. The lesbian couple in the story didn’t have an appointment and didn’t want to wait to make one, but they weren’t treated any differently than a straight couple would have been.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  17. Franklin says:

    Argh, people. Look at the words next to the thumb’s up and thumb’s down. Boyd’s first comment is perfectly valid and well-argued with no opinions inserted anywhere, but he’s got 4 “unhelpful” votes. You folks voted in the mistaken belief that he’s just some guy on the other side and you’re gonna stick it to him. Likewise, MBunge had a valid retort, and for some reason he/she has an “unhelpful” vote, too.

    I like the voting system when it gets rid of completely useless tripe, but hopefully Boyd’s comment isn’t in danger here due to idiots who go around voting against any arguments they don’t have the brains to counter.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  18. An Interested Party says:

    In any case, members of various religions – Christianity included – have often opposed their governments when they felt they were being coerced into performing duties that violated their consciences. This woman’s personal stance is hardly at variance with the prevailing attitude toward sexuality within Christianity, whether considered geographically or historically, and her response to the change in the law does not even amount to civil disobedience at this point but is rather a form of mild protest. From that standpoint, this is really a non-story, though it will be interesting to see how the legal battle plays out.

    The same reasoning was used 40+ years ago by those opposed to interracial marriage and we see how that legal battle played out, as well as how that antiquated, bigoted view was tossed into the garbage heap of history…history will surely repeat itself…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  19. A voice from another precinct says:

    @Franklin: I see your point. So to balance things out, I just voted all of Doug’s comments as “unhelpful” and all of Boyd’s as “helpful.” I also voted for yours as “helpful.”

    Personally, I thought “like/dislike” was more honest, but what would I know.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. Boyd says:

    @Franklin: Thanks for your support, Franklin. I don’t care much about any Unhelpful votes since I think I’ve pretty well established my rep ’round these parts over the last seven or eight years I’ve been a regular here.

    OTOH, it’s always heartening to have someone recognize logic in response to kneejerk emotionalism. There are still a good number of sensible folk around OTB, but the partisan lunatics do seem to drown them out sometimes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. Boyd says:

    @A voice from another precinct: I think James went with the Helpful/Unhelpful choices in an attempt to drive reasoned debate. The usual suspects will promote their partisan/maniacal stances through their votes no matter what you do, but others will take his intent to heart and try to honor it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. jd says:

    “I’d like to make an appointment.”
    “Are you gay or straight?”
    “Gay.”
    “Mmmmm. I can pencil you in three months from now.”
    The devil’s in the details.
    -jd, PFLAG Tampa

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  23. Boyd says:

    @jd: There’s zero evidence that the conditions you describe are happening. The NYT article, the only source of information we have, indicates that there is zero evidence that there is any difference in how the town clerk responds to couples based on their sexual orientation. So basically, you’re making it up to fit with your agenda.

    Or maybe the NYT is staffed by a plethora of incompetent boobs who don’t bother to find all those luscious, juicy instances where this evil Christian town clerk is persecuting gays and lesbians. What a bunch of idiots they have working there! All they need to do is talk to OTB commenters and they’ll have ample evidence of discrimination.

    Please, don’t make it up as you go along. If you have evidence, please substantiate it. If this is a dream you pulled from your imagination (or maybe your nether regions), then you’re just making stuff up to suit your preconceived notions that Doug encouraged with nothing to back up his opinion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  24. jd says:

    @Boyd: I didn’t say there was any evidence that was happening. I’m merely pointing out that a fairly written law can be subverted by clever implementation. Seems like you didst protest too much.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  25. Boyd says:

    @jd: Of course a fairly written law can be subverted. Any law could be subverted (lawmakers ain’t that smart, in case you haven’t noticed). My point is that there is no evidence in this case (that we’ve seen so far) that any such subversion is happening. None. Zip. Nada.

    I protest too much? Sure, when people create discrimination out of their minds instead of finding actual evidence, yes. I’ll protest until the cows come home. That seems like the principled approach to me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. Boyd says:

    @jd: Oh, and thanks for downranking my comment because I pointed out that you were making stuff up instead of actually pointing out evidence of discrimination.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  27. ponce says:

    A self-righteous bigot who gets $20,000 a year for working a government job nine hours a week, and she can’t even do that right.

    The face of today’s Republican party.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  28. mattb says:

    I would be more sympathetic to Boyd’s line of thinking if it wasn’t for the fact that other NY Clerks who were opposed to this for moral reasons resigned their positions when this law took effect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  29. Boyd says:

    @mattb: That’s a different issue, Matt. The town clerk, to all appearances we’ve seen so far, found a non-discriminatory way to serve the public according to NY state law without having to perform actions herself that she disagrees with. This may not be the best way to approach the conflict, and some may feel that she’s merely putting a nice window dressing on the situation to make her feel better about herself.

    But the only way we know there’s any question that she has taken discriminatory actions is because a lesbian couple has sued her, although I’ve been unable so far to locate any actual court records (not that I’m particularly adept at that). But none of the numerous news stories and blog postings and interviews with Ms. DiBiaggio and Ms. Carmichael (the purported plaintiffs) have given any examples of discriminatory practices by Ms. Belforti, the town clerk. She has stopped issuing any marriage licenses, and she has said that’s because of her objection to same sex marriage, but she has diligently (and successfully, to all appearances) avoided doing anything different for same sex couples as opposed to opposite sex couples.

    Again, I’m not defending her actions per se, and I would certainly not have pursued the same path if I had been in her position, but I have seen zero evidence that she has performed any discriminatory act beyond unsubstantiated accusations.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. samwide says:

    @Boyd:

    But the only way we know there’s any question that she has taken discriminatory actions is because a lesbian couple has sued her, although I’ve been unable so far to locate any actual court records (not that I’m particularly adept at that).

    According to the news story they’ve not sued, but are thinking about doing so:

    But Ms. DiBiaggio and Ms. Carmichael say [the clerk’s action] is discriminatory, and they are contemplating filing a lawsuit. The women, who have been together for 10 years and own a working farm in nearby Springport, declined Ms. Belforti’s request that they make an appointment and return later when they stopped by the Ledyard clerk’s office seeking a marriage license.

    Just an observation. I don’t know about you, but if I made a trip into town to get a document that the state says I and my partner have to have before we can exercise a right granted to us by the legislature (and I’m guessing the ladies’ farm is not that near to town) and was told to make an appointment by the person who gives out the document, I’d be steamed and so, I dare say, would you. She has no right whatsoever to withhold that license from that couple, her religious beliefs notwithstanding. As was pointed out upthread, if she had any integrity, and was really, really convinced that gay marriage is evil, she’d resign as the other clerks did. And if she really thinks that she can escape responsibility by delegating the task to someone else, she needs a lesson in moral logic. You do not escape responsibility for an act you believe is immoral by instructing someone else–over whom you have responsibility –to perform the act.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  31. DJ says:

    @An Interested Party: Nonsense. America isn’t the only place where Christians have ever existed, and they didn’t universally support bans on interracial marriage, here or elsewhere. “American exceptionalism” applies, in a way, just as much to American religion as it does to anything else distinctly American. That is, American Christianity is, for lack of a better word, rather strange compared to Christianity in the rest of the world. Using a particularly dark era of our history, in which such prejudices were motivated every bit as much by socio-economic factors as by religious ones, and during which many religious leaders and their followers opposed the status quo, rather misses the point. I was referring to the consensus within the religion, considered globally and historically. The comment to which I was responding went along the lines of “that woman’s behavior wasn’t very Christian,” which is nonsense given the stance that Christianity has historically taken on such matters (a fact which the town clerk herself may not even be aware of, BTW).

    The foregoing has nothing to do with whether her action was/is legally justifiable or not. I’m not sure if this is really a “religious freedom” issue or not, but I do think that if this were a non-Christian dissenter (say, a Jew or a Muslim), the objection itself would be given more serious consideration. On that note I really don’t care what the state of New York thinks marriage is as long as it doesn’t mandate that non-government entities (i.e., churches, synagogues, etc.) perform such marriages, too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. DJ says:

    @de stijl: That’s begging the question, though, isn’t it? I don’t see any evidence so far that this clerk has performed her duties in a discriminatory manner. I’m not sure that I would have handled the situation the same way had I been in this clerk’s shoes. But to quote “render unto Caesar” is simply to argue by slogan. Rendering unto Caesar is hardly a cut-and-dry matter in the real world. The duty to render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar implies that one may first discern what belongs to Caesar and what doesn’t belong to Caesar, which is part of what this whole issue is about. Simply shouting “render unto Caesar!” is putting the cart before the horse and attempting to declare an end to the debate before it has actually begun.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. DJ says:

    @samwide: Good point.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  34. An Interested Party says:

    America isn’t the only place where Christians have ever existed, and they didn’t universally support bans on interracial marriage, here or elsewhere.

    Nor do they universally support bans on same sex marriage…

    The comment to which I was responding went along the lines of “that woman’s behavior wasn’t very Christian,” which is nonsense given the stance that Christianity has historically taken on such matters…

    And who are you to judge what is or isn’t “very Christian”? Passages from the Bible have been used to condone all kinds of insidious things, like slavery, racial discrimination, and bigotry against gay people…

    On that note I really don’t care what the state of New York thinks marriage is as long as it doesn’t mandate that non-government entities (i.e., churches, synagogues, etc.) perform such marriages, too.

    A complete non-issue, as that has not happened in any jurisdiction where same sex marriage is legal…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  35. MarkedMan says:

    Doesn’t anyone but me think it is ridiculous that she can assign these duties to another person in the first place? She’s hired to do a job. She won’t do it because of her religious belief. Reasonable accommodations for religion are acceptable but this isn’t reasonable. The accommodation is to have someone else do her job.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  36. jd says:

    @Boyd: "thanks for downranking my comment"
    You’re welcome… to my opinion. And where’s MY admin login?!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. Nikki says:

    Ya know, I really hate that once you click on the thumbup/thumbdown, you can’t change your choice, especially if you clicked on it inadvertently. Is there any way to fix this?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0