Ledyard Clerk race raises duty verses belief debate

Ed Easter and Rose Marie Belforti / Caitlin Nuclo

Longtime town clerk Rose Marie Belforti handles building permits, hunting licenses and government records for people in this farm-heavy Finger Lakes community.

Marriage licenses are a different story, because of her faith.

Shortly after New York became the sixth and largest state to sanction gay marriage this summer, Belforti told town board members her Christian beliefs preclude her from issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Her solution, to have her office issue all marriage licenses by appointment so a deputy can handle them, has irked some people. And one, Ed Easter, is challenging her as a write-in candidate, saying "what she is doing is wrong."

Improbably, gay marriage and religion loom as issues in the Nov. 8 race for a part-time, $12,000-a-year clerk's job in this town of gently sloping hills on Cayuga Lake. Voters are posed with the question: Where is the line between an elected official's public duty and private beliefs?

"I want to do what the Bible tells me to do," Belforti said, sitting in her small town hall office on a recent day.

"I realized that I can't do this," she said. "There are too many references in the Bible that say this is not right."

Belforti, 57, is a grandmother who makes artisanal cheese with her husband at their nearby farm. Since her election in 2001, she has staffed the town hall every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning. On a recent shift, she wore black jeans and cowboy boots as she answered the phone and distributed forms at the service window. When a father and son came for hunting licenses, she knew their names.

Belforti was on a glide path to re-election when Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York lawmakers approved the same-sex marriage measure June 24. The bill was passed only with the last-minute support of four fence-sitting Republicans state Senators, and advocates on both sides of the issue are trying to influence their political fate in legislative elections next year.

But some of the first government officials affected by the new law are the municipal clerks who issue marriage licenses. Two clerks in rural upstate resigned rather than violate their religious beliefs by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples (Cuomo had warned that clerks don't get to choose which laws to obey).

More commonly, clerks in New York City and elsewhere went out of their way to accommodate gay couples who wanted to get married as soon as the law was enacted July 24.

Belforti took a different path. She set up a system where a deputy, paid by the hour, would issue marriage licenses by appointment to all couples. She thought she found a solution that respected her religious views and maintained equal access to straight and gay couples.

The arrangement was quickly tested by a lesbian couple from Florida with a farm in the area. When the women appeared at her window at town hall seeking a marriage license, Belforti tried to set up an appointment and they refused. The women are represented by the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way. A lawsuit is possible, though none has been filed.

One of the women, Katie Carmichael, said she felt as though "the wind had gone out of my sails" when Belforti refused them a license.

"We know we could go down the street and get another license," Carmichael said. "The problem is if we did that, then wouldn't that just be passing the buck? At some point, isn't another person going to have to go through this? We have to stand up."

If there's a lawsuit, Belforti will be represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based firm that presses faith-based cases in court. Belforti says she is not discriminating against anyone since both gay and straight couples must make appointments. And she turns the argument around: She says people are opposed to accommodating her faith.

Belforti's position has drawn criticism from people who feel they are being asked to pay a deputy to do something the clerk should do. It rankled Easter enough to launch his write-in campaign.

The 40-year-old works at a local wine shop and has lived in town for more than a year with his wife and stepson. He had no particular dream to become a town clerk, but he felt the situation demanded that someone step up. Easter, like Belforti, is a Republican. He also is a Christian who said the issue is not his opponent's faith.

"It's not about attacking her beliefs," Easter said, "it's about her beliefs are not letting her do her job."

Marriage licenses are a small part of the clerk's job: Belforti said the office has never issued more than seven a year. But the controversy has resonated here. Residents asked about the issue recently all knew something about it. Some said that they liked Belforti and respected her right to her religious views, but said she should consider stepping down if she can't do the job.

"In her situation, can she have it both ways? I don't think so," said Jacci Farlow, managing director of the Aurora Arts and Design Center.

Belforti said she has endured nasty emails and charges that she is a bigot, which she emphatically disputes. There have been calls to boycott her cheese business, a tactic Easter disagrees with.

"This has never been about putting her out of business," he said, "it's about putting her out of office."

There is no polling for such a small-town race and it's unclear just how important the marriage debate will be to voters compared to the personal relationships that dominate small-town elections.

"I think she's wrong, but I'm voting for her anyway. I think she's just a splendid town clerk," said Bradley Mitchell as he left the local post office.

The race has received wider interest from advocates on both sides of the gay marriage debate. Still, it looks like a stretch to see the race as a political harbinger.

There are only about 1,000 registered voters in Ledyard, a town where the farms are interrupted by the quaint lakeside village of Aurora, home to Wells College. Ledyard differs demographically from the sprawling, suburban senatorial districts that could become battlegrounds during next year's legislative elections.

And while millions of dollars are already being pledged for and against the Republican lawmakers who voted for gay marriage, the town clerk candidates are looking at campaign accounts more in line with a monthly mortgage payment.

Belforti expects to get $500 from supporters, which she will use for a mailing to outline her record and explain her stance on marriage licenses. Easter figures he has raised around $1,200 and plans on yard signs to help get his message out.

"I think in the end no matter how this turns out," he said, "that this conversation needs to be had."

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