LEDYARD, N.Y. — Residents used a free-flowing public forum during Monday’s Ledyard town board meeting to share their views on town clerk Rose Marie Belforti’s refusal to sign same-sex marriage licenses.
Belforti, who has been asked by Ledyard town supervisor Mark Jordan and deputy supervisor Jim Frisch not to sign gay or straight marriage licenses, was on hand recording the minutes of the meeting as most of the speakers in the audience of about 20 residents spoke out against her position on gay marriage licenses.
One resident, Arthur Bellinzoni, asked to be placed on the meeting’s agenda and spoke for more than five minutes. During his remarks, Bellinzoni criticized the town for the decision, which now means anyone seeking a marriage license must make an appointment and return to the office when a deputy clerk is available.
Bellinzoni went to the Ledyard town offices in August with Katherine Carmichael and Deidre DiBiaggio. The women were hoping to obtain a marriage license. Belforti, according to Bellinzoni, told them that she was “ordered by the town board not to issue marriage licenses.”
“Apparently, the town board has set up an illegal scheme for the sole purpose of protecting the town clerk from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but there are no minutes of town board meetings beyond the February 2011 meeting posted on the website, so I don’t really know exactly what transpired at the August meeting or subsequently behind closed doors,” Bellinzoni said in his remarks.
Frisch was quick to defend the town board, saying that the town clerk is “not an employee” of the town, but rather an employee of the people since she is an elected official.
“She does not take her marching orders from the town board,” he said. “That is not within our power.”
Belforti did have an opportunity to speak. She shared the total annual amount the town paid for the services of deputy clerks since 2005 and the highest amount paid out was $200 in 2010, according to Belforti.
“Most towns this size have a deputy (clerk) in the budget. 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,” she said.
Belforti said very little about her reasons for her refusal to sign same-sex marriage licenses. She wrote a letter to the town board in August and cited her religious beliefs as the reason why she could not sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples.
One resident asked Belforti why she has taken this position and Belforti responded, “it’s a religious decision.”
The town did not take any action on the issue Monday evening, but may face a lawsuit as a result of the current situation with the clerk’s office. According to a letter obtained by The Citizen from Proskauer Rose LLP, a New York City law firm, Carmichael and DiBiaggio may file a lawsuit against the town.
In the letter, the law firm called on the town to direct Belforti to “perform her essential duties” which includes issuing marriage licenses, or resign.
When a resident said that the town’s taxpayer dollars will be used to defend the town against a lawsuit, Jordan disagreed.
“I don’t see the Town of Ledyard spending any money on a lawsuit,” he said. “The clerk runs her own office. We cannot force her. We’re trying to help out the people in the Town of Ledyard so they can still be able to get marriage licenses.”
PFAW Foundation Demands that NY Town Clerks End Marriage Discrimination
In a related statement issued earlier on Monday, Michael Keegan, President of People For the American Way Foundation said, “Public officials can’t pick and choose the laws they want to follow.”
“This year the State of New York made the decision to recognize the fundamental rights of gay and lesbian New Yorkers by finally allowing all couples to have equal access to the protections only marriage provides,” said Keegan. “Unfortunately, there are some elected officials out there who wish to continue discriminating despite the law’s protections, rather than just do their jobs. Our trust in our elected officials to uphold the people’s laws has no room for such bias.”
“Enforcement of the Marriage Equality Act is not subject to the opinion of town clerks – it is the right of all New Yorkers,” Keegan said.
People For the American Way Foundation said it is exploring remedies to protect Carmichael and DiBiaggio’s rights under New York law, including possible legal action.