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.