Who Has the Right? Christian Town Clerk Shirks Role Over Gay Marriage Licenses

A clerk in a small New York town says her Christian beliefs prohibit her from granting marriage licenses to gay couples, so she arranged for same-sex marriage licenses to be handled by a deputy, which requires an appointment and takes more time. Her case has been cast as a microcosm of the culture war between gay rights advocates and Christian conservatives trumping their religious freedom.

The town of Ledyard, New York, with a population of under 2,000, has become the setting for a gay marriage battle in a state where some believed that part of the culture war was over when gay marriage became legal earlier this year. But when Deirdre DiBiaggio and Katie Carmichael, a lesbian couple from Florida who owns a farm in the Ledyard area, came to Rose Marie Belforti, the elected town clerk, for a marriage license, Belforti told them that because they were gay, they would have to wait.

Belforti believes homosexuality is a sin and does not wish to participate in the marrying of two gay people, The New York Times reported. Staying true to her beliefs, she told the couple they would have to make an appointment and wait for a deputy who would sign the license. But the couple says that is discrimination and a violation of New York State laws.

The town of Ledyard "is allowing [Belforti] to circumvent the law," Katie Carmichael told The Citizen, a publication based in Auburn, New York.

Belforti disagrees. "New York law protects my right to hold both my job and my beliefs," she told the New York publication. "I'm not supposed to have to leave my beliefs at the door at my government job."

However, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Marriage Equality Act earlier this year, he made clear that state workers would not be allowed to use their religion as an excuse to deny same-sex marriage licenses.

"When you enforce the laws of the state, you don’t get to pick and choose," Cuomo said, adding that those who disobey the law would be charged with a misdemeanor.

Belforti's lawyers have a different point of view.

"That's a hard statement to reconcile with New York’s Human Rights laws, which protect religious freedom," said Holly Carmichael, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a conservative Christian advocacy group, who is working with Belforti.

People for the American Way (PAW), a liberal advocacy group that is representing Deirdre DiBiaggio and Katie Carmichael, disagree with Holly Carmichael's interpretation of the law.

Drew Courtney, the communications director of PAW, told CP: "The plain language, legislative history, and case law make clear that [New York's human rights laws] do not allow an elected official to sidestep her duties."

The section of the New York Human Rights Law that pertains to religious beliefs colliding with job duties contains language that appears to allow Belforti the right to delegate her marriage licensing duties when it comes to gay couples.

The law states: "It shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice for any employer… to impose upon a person as a condition of…employment…any terms or conditions that would require such person to violate or forego a sincerely held practice of his or her religion… unless…the employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate the employee's…sincerely held religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business."

Those "accommodations" have already been made by the town of Ledyard, which has agreed to have Belforti's license-granting powers delegated to deputy clerks.

But extra deputy clerks are not always available, according to Ledyard town councilman, Jim Frisch. In a small town, that might prove uneasy to "accommodate."

The question remains: does Belforti have the right to treat a homosexual couple differently than a heterosexual couple while performing her duties as a publicly elected official?

Holly Carmichael told CP that the question is the wrong one to be asking.

“I’m tired of this being labeled as 'discrimination,'" she said. "The irony here is that the same groups that argue for tolerance are some of the most intolerant when it comes to matters of one’s beliefs."

Holly Carmichael also pointed out that, although the Ledyard case involves just one person in a small town, it is indicative of a whole lot more: "There's a steady campaign in this country that is trying to erode religious rights," she said.

Katie Carmichael also believes there is a bigger picture, but from a different perspective: "Gay people have fought so long and hard to get these civil rights," she told the Times. "To have [Belforti] basically telling us to get in the back of the line is just not acceptable."

Belforti, who is up for re-election, said she had no regrets.

"I'm totally at peace, because God comes first for me," she told the Times.

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