While two New York town clerks resigned their jobs rather than violate their religious beliefs by signing marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples, a third town clerk who also claims to have religious objections to gay marriage will hire a temporary deputy clerk to process marriage licenses in her office and keep her job in an upstate town.
“Most towns this size have a deputy in the budget,” Rose Marie Belforti, the Ledyard town clerk, said at a September 12 town meeting. “They have a line item for the salary of a deputy. I do not. I do all the work myself and I rarely hire a deputy.”
Belforti was quoted in the Citizen, a newspaper serving Cayuga County, which posted the article on auburnpub.com. The paper paraphrased Belforti saying that “the town paid for the services of deputy clerks since 2005 and the highest amount paid out was $200 in 2010.”
Upstate Ledyard, Rose Marie Belforti reach tentative agreement to bring in temps to process licenses
A September 27 story about Belforti in the New York Times presented her as a deeply religious person who has moral objections to homosexuality. This unusual hiring of temporary clerks just to handle marriage licenses suggests that Belforti is as concerned with keeping her job as she is with not processing licenses for gay and lesbian couples.
Belforti first informed the town board of her objections at its August 8 meeting, when she gave them a memo prepared by the Alliance Defense Fund, a right-wing legal group that now represents her.
As town clerk, Belforti takes the minutes at town meetings. Her description of her actions is generous.
“Town Clerk Rose Marie Belforti gave a memo for Town Clerks who are opposed to processing same-sex marriage applications based on religious beliefs to the Town Board,” she wrote. “The memo was from the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization that defends the right to hear and speak the truth through strategy, training, funding, and litigation. She informed the Town Board that she would be compromising her Christian moral conscience if she were to participate in the same-sex marriage licensing procedure.”
The memo was forwarded to Adam Van Buskirk, the Ledyard city attorney, who did not respond to emails and a call seeking comment.
A September 1 story in the Citizen indicated that by then the town had decided to hire temporary clerks to handle marriage licenses. The temporary clerks will work only when a marriage license has to be processed, so those seeking to wed are required to make appointments in advance.
“The clerk, until this matter is resolved, is not doing any marriage licenses,” the Citizen quoted Ledyard Councilman Jim Frisch saying. “At least, that’s what she has agreed to. In the interim, appointed deputy clerks will attend to all marriage licenses, but these deputy clerks are not there at all times.”
Ledyard appears to have gone to great lengths to accommodate Belforti. No other New York municipality or county is known to have made such an arrangement. Aside from the two town clerks who resigned, another who has religious objections to gay marriage stopped presiding at weddings, but still processes marriage licenses.
There are 932 town clerks in New York.
What is not clear is how the town will police Belforti to ensure that she does not issue marriage licenses to heterosexual couples who may come to the office without an appointment.
On August 30, Katie Carmichael and Deirdre DiBiaggio sought a marriage license at the Ledyard town clerk’s office, but were denied one by Belforti.
The couple were accompanied by Arthur J. Bellinzoni, a board member at People For the American Way Foundation (PFAW), a liberal advocacy group. Bellinzoni contacted PFAW on August 15 to alert the organization to Belforti’s position on marriage, according to Debbie Liu, PFAW’s general counsel. Liu said that Bellinzoni and the couple are friends and PFAW and the two women did not plan to challenge Belforti. PFAW is representing the couple.
Belforti may have committed a crime when she denied a license to the couple. It is a misdemeanor in New York for a public official to knowingly refrain “from performing a duty which is imposed upon him by law or is clearly inherent in the nature of his office.”
Jon E. Budelmann, the Cayuga County district attorney, is investigating, but any action hinges on finding that Belforti intended to deprive the couple of a benefit.
“I think they clearly have the right to the license and she had no right to refuse it,” Budelmann told Gay City News. “The issue is does it rise to the level of a crime.”
Auburnpub.com reported that at the October 10 town board meeting, Town Supervisor Mark Jordan said that his conversations with the New York Association of Towns convinced him that Ledyard is “totally in the right” in asking couples to make appointments to obtain a marriage license.
The matter appears to be at a stand off currently with the couple the pondering a lawsuit. Ledyard officials and Eric M. Schneiderman, the state attorney general, did not respond to requests for comment.