$25K Fine for Refusing Gay Marriage License

$25K Fine for Refusing Gay Marriage License

An upstate New York town has been ordered to pay $25,000 to a same-sex couple as part of a settlement after the town clerk refused to grant them a marriage license last July.

Dylan Toften and Thomas Hurd sought a marriage license in the town of Root, New York, which is roughly 50 miles west of Albany, but they immediately ran into a roadblock when town clerk Lauren “Sherrie” Eriksen would not comply with their request. Instead, she directed them to make an appointment.

According to the Times-Union of Albany, the town attorney admitted that Eriksen had a “religious objection” to same-sex marriage and historically refused to do her job when same-sex couples sought licenses. The newspaper noted that a lesbian couple six years ago endured the same experience: Eriksen allegedly refused to process their license and told them to make an appointment in an apparent attempt to pass the responsibilities onto other staffers.

Toften and Hurd, represented by Lambda Legal, sued the town for violating the state’s Marriage Equality Act and federal and states civil rights laws, resulting in the settlement reached on April 10. Under the terms of that settlement, the clerk was required to issue a statement agreeing to follow the law, while the town was forced to pay the couple $25,000 and state in its policy that town clerks must provide licenses to couples in accordance with the law.

The case caught the attention of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced in August that he launched an investigation, saying on Twitter that denying the couple a license “is an unconscionable act of discrimination that goes against our values as New Yorkers.”

Eriksen carried out her end of the settlement by reading a public statement at an April 10 town meeting. She apologized and stated that it is her responsibility to issue licenses to all couples, regardless of “sex or sexual orientation,” as long as they meet all legal requirements.

“On July 30th of last year, there was an unfortunate incident involving Mr. Thomas Hurd and Mr. Dylan Toften who came to my office seeking a marriage license,” she said in the statement. “I am sorry for any harm or inconvenience my actions caused the couple.”

Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, praised the town for reaffirming its duty to serve all couples, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“The law recognizes the equal dignity of same-sex couples, and so too must every government official,” Gonzalez-Pagan said. “We hope this serves as a reminder to government officials in every town — no matter its size — that marriage equality is the law of the land and that religious beliefs do not grant a license to discriminate.”

The couple, now married, wound up obtaining a marriage license in nearby Cobleskill. The duo did not respond to requests for comment, but Toften reacted to the settlement via Lambda Legal.

“We feel vindicated and grateful that the Town of Root has realized its obligation to respect our family and all same-sex couples on the same terms as any different-sex couple who wants to marry,” Toften said. “We are happy the State of New York supports our marriage and that we were able to not allow this one town clerk in our town to get away with violating the law and discriminating against LGBT families.”