Politics & Policy

Much Ado About Nothing?

Ledyard, N.Y.’s town clerk may be well within her rights.

When New York legalized same-sex marriage in June, Rose Marie Belforti, the town clerk in Ledyard, N.Y., faced a dilemma: Either betray her Christian faith by granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, or resign. Or at least that’s the choice same-sex-marriage advocates gave her. Instead, Belforti devised a compromise: She asked a deputy to sign all marriage licenses for her, so the town could obey the law, and she could keep her job.

But for Deirdre DiBiaggio and Katie Carmichael, that wasn’t good enough.

In August, the lesbian couple trekked to town hall to request a license. Belforti told them they’d have to make an appointment and return on a day when a deputy was available. Upset by the delay, the couple accused Belforti of discriminating against them, and they enlisted the People for the American Way Foundation and the law firm Proskauer Rose, LLP in their cause. Although the couple has yet to file charges, Drew Courtney, director of communications for the foundation, tells NRO, “We’re exploring that possibility.”

“Couples shouldn’t get turned away because of a clerk’s religious beliefs,” he says. “She’s trying to sidestep an entire area of her duties.”

Last month, James Gregory, an attorney with Proskauer, sent Belforti and Mark Jordan, the town supervisor, a letter, in which he demanded that the town council direct Belforti to issue the license or resign. But the council declined. “The clerk runs her own office. We cannot force her,” Jordan said at a town-council meeting.

To bolster his case, Gregory included a copy of a memo on the law that the state department of health sent to all town clerks in July. “No application for a marriage license shall be denied on the ground that the parties are of the same or a different sex,” the memo warned. In addition, Gregory cited Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who, while speaking on the issue, said, “When you enforce the laws of the state you don’t get to pick and choose the laws.”

But Belforti isn’t picking which laws to enforce, she’s merely changing how she enforces them, says Holly Carmichael, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, which will assist Belforti in the event of litigation. Carmichael notes that in a New York Times article on the controversy, Katie Carmichael (no relation) complains, “To have her basically telling us to get in the back of the line is just not acceptable.”

“They were actually just asked to stand in line,” Carmichael quips. Because Belforti requires all couples — heterosexual and homosexual — to make appointments with a deputy to receive their licenses, Carmichael argues she’s well within the law. “Perhaps they just don’t understand that in small towns you can’t get exactly what you want when you come in,” Carmichael says.

Furthermore, Carmichael points to a state statute that allows town clerks to appoint deputies to grant marriage licenses. Domestic Relations Law § 15(3) reads:

Notwithstanding any other provisions of this article, the clerk of any city with the approval of the governing body of such city is hereby authorized to designate, in writing filed in the city clerk’s office, a deputy clerk, if any, and/or other receive applications for, examine applications, investigate and issue marriage licenses in the absence or inability of the clerk of said city to act, and said deputy and/or employees so designated are hereby vested with all the powers and duties of said city clerk relative thereto.

If state law allows Belforti to appoint a deputy, and she requires all couples to follow the same procedure, it’s difficult to see on what grounds the couple would lay their case. It’s also easier to see the uproar over Belforti’s decision as the knee-jerk reaction of an intolerant Left.

— Brian Bolduc is a reporter for National Review Online.

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