Looking at Town Clerks and ‘Conscience’

The New York Times can’t really do a story on gay issues without getting some pushback.  A recent story on a charity program that funds alleged “hate groups” got criticism from the left and the right. So I was curious to read today’s story on a town clerk in rural New York who is refusing to give same-sex couples marriage licenses. The story is very sympathetic to the clerk, as profiles are apt to do, but does cover the whole terrain.

Ms. Belforti, a Republican, first won election as town clerk a decade ago, and thought she had a creative solution this summer to a vexing problem by agreeing to delegate the signing of marriage licenses.

“For me to participate in the same-sex marriage application process I don’t feel is right,” she said. “God doesn’t want me to do this, so I can’t do what God doesn’t want me to do, just like I can’t steal, or any of the other things that God doesn’t want me to do.”

The clerk’s office is open nine hours a week — Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. Ms. Belforti also does duty cleaning the town hall bathrooms. And she is a farmer, married with four grown daughters, who makes probiotic kefir cheese.

A Protestant who worships at several area churches, Ms. Belforti read to a reporter a passage from the first chapter of Romans, which she says condemns homosexual activity, offering it as an explanation for her stance.

“This is about religious freedom,” she said. “This is not about trashing gay people.”

The story also presents the views of the couple involved in the case, although their quotes are more stilted, and looks at how the issue is playing out among the town’s folk. Given the amount of coverage the NYT has given to same-sex marriage, it’s hard to fault a single story that seems to balance in favor of the clerk (although it is hard to imagine a government official who refused to follow civil rights laws in the 1960s would have been given such sympathetic treatment).

My main criticism of the story is that everyone has lawyered up, yet we are given no real sense about the legal claims. Does a government employee have a “conscience” right not to sign a marriage certificate? Do individual believers–especially government officials–have the “right” to avoid laws they don’t agree with? Those questions go unanswered.

There is clearly a political effort to portray such dissenters as victims. Maggie Gallagher has left her position at the National Organization for Marriage to lead such an effort, using town clerks as exhibit number one in this victimhood. Given the full-funded effort to fight the religious liberty wars, journalists now have a new responsibility.

This responsibility means digging deeper beyond the rhetoric.  What does the law say about “conscience.”  This isn’t a new argument, so what does history tell us?  Is it enough to quote a passage from Romans to justify not fulfilling your public responsibility? And what are the ramifications beyond LGBT issues. What about the conscience rights of Muslims, or racists in the Christian Identity movement?  What do activists have to say about the slippery slopes that are created?

2 Responses

  1. The Times ignored a lot of information here.

    There are 932 town clerks in New York, according to the New York State Town Clerks Association. Two resigned rather than sign marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples and a third still signs licenses, but no longer officiates at ceremonies. Altogether, .004 percent of the state’s town clerks opposed same sex marriage to the point that it led them to take some action. That makes this story look more like “So what?” than important.

    The two who resigned look very principled if principled is defined as acting in accordance with one’s beliefs. Belforti, in contrast, looks like someone who wants to keep her job, but does not want to do her job. She does not look so admirable when compared to her peers.

    Then the Times claimed she is part of an “emerging test case.” I cannot find any lawsuit related to this matter in state or federal court, but that is probably beside the point. Employers must accommodate the religious beliefs of their employees, but no reasonable person, and no court, is going to conclude that not doing your job at all is a reasonable accommodation.

    When one also considers that Kathleen Rice, the Nassau County district attorney, warned clerks in that county that refusing to sign the marriage licenses of gay and lesbian couples might subject them to criminal prosecution it does seem that Belforti has no legal basis whatsoever for refusing to do her job.

    I think we have to conclude that Belforti has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning a lawsuit if she ever brings a lawsuit. I think the Times bent over backwards to make Belforti’s case for her.

  2. Re Duncan Osborne above: Belforti is not going to initiate a lawsuit; the aggrieved couple, sponsored by People for the American Way, is more likely to initiate the lawsuit. I suspect that they will name the village or county as defendants as well as Belforti. That will put some pressure on the Village.

    I agree with the analysis that the NYTimes did not do as probing a job with this story as they should. It is noteworthy that the comments on the story are overwhelmingly opposed to Belforti’s position, despite the Times’s effort to portray her in the most sympathetic way possible.

    It is noteworthy that this issue has been litigated in Canada, with the Canadian courts ruling that the indignity suffered by gay couples (by having to wait to be referred to another marriage commissioner when one marriage commissioner claims religious concerns preclude their performing a same-sex marriage) has far greater claim to Charter protection than the alleged religious right not to perform a job. That ruling, of course, has no precedence in the US, but it considers the same issues and balances competing rights.

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