Upstate NY Town Clerk Continues Granting Only Opposite-Sex Marriage Licenses
BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | A New York town clerk who in 2011 said she would no longer sign any marriage licenses because her religious beliefs barred her from signing them for same-sex couples violated her pledge when she signed marriage licenses for two heterosexual couples in 2012.
“I can actually say that I am sorry that I had to do that and I had to violate my own rule,” Rose Marie Belforti, the Ledyard town clerk, told Gay City News in a January 3 phone interview.
In August of 2011, just over one month after same-sex couples began marrying in New York, Belforti refused to issue a marriage license to a lesbian couple, citing her religious beliefs. In the fall of that year, Belforti and Ledyard’s Republican-controlled town council agreed that she would no longer issue any marriage licenses and a part-time deputy clerk would handle that responsibility by appointment only.
Despite her pledge to stand down from issuing licenses altogether, Ledyard’s Rose Marie Belforti cooperated with heterosexual couples
In one instance, the couple needed the license quickly, Belforti said. She offered no explanation for issuing the second marriage license.
“I do make every effort to do what I said I was going to do,” Belforti said. “I was in an expedited situation and I did it for them… I didn’t feel good about that either.”
In 2011, 2012, and 2013, Ledyard issued 20 marriage licenses, according to state health department records. The deputy clerk signed 15 of those, with one issued in 2013 to a same-sex couple, and Belforti signed the remaining five, though three were issued before she denied a license to the lesbian couple. By signing the two licenses in 2012, Belforti now looks like she is refusing to sign marriage licenses only for same-sex couples, an act that may violate state law.
Belforti’s deal with her town council, which was probably not legally binding, was unusual. Ledyard never before had a deputy clerk post –– “I do all the work myself and I rarely hire a deputy,” she told the council at the time –– and the new position allowed Belforti to keep her job, but not perform part of her job. Belforti was assisted by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing legal group formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund.
In 2011, two other New York town clerks who also had religious objections to same-sex unions resigned their positions rather than sign marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples. A third clerk stopped presiding over all marriages, but still signed the licenses. There are more than 930 town clerks in New York.
“This essentially shows why the arrangement is problematic in the first place,” said Drew Courtney, spokesman for the People For the American Way Foundation (PFAW). “Elected officials cannot pick and choose which laws they enforce. This is about applying the law equally to all people. Every citizen has a right to his or her beliefs and that includes Rose Marie Belforti, but she signed up to do a job and she has to do it. If she doesn’t want to do it, she should resign.”
The civil rights group represented the couple, Katie Carmichael and Deirdre DiBiaggio, after they were refused the license. When they applied for the license, they were accompanied by Arthur J. Bellinzoni, a PFAW board member.
“Fundamentally, this is about applying the law equally,” Courtney said. “By signing marriage licenses for some and not for others, that principle is being violated.”
Following the 2011 uproar, Belforti faced Ed Easter, a write-in candidate, in her reelection bid that year and won with 314 votes to Easter’s 226. In 2013, she had no opponent when she again faced the voters.
As Gay City News posted this story, neither State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office nor Cayuga County District Attorney Jon E. Budelman’s office had provided comment in response to the newspaper’s inquiry.