A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Tag: conscience clause

A Guilty Conscience?

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By Drew Carroll and Halina Schiffman-Shilo

On June 24, the Empire State Building was lit up by the rainbow colors of gay pride in celebration of the passage of the Marriage Equality Act, which legalizes same-sex marriage in New York. Many lauded the bill’s passage. Somewhere in a small town in upstate New York, Rose Marie Belforti, for one, was less thrilled.

For 10 years, Ms. Belforti has served as the town clerk in Ledyard, a small farming community near Syracuse. A farmer, cheese maker, and mother of four, Ms. Belforti is now at the center of a fierce debate over whether religious beliefs can exempt public officials from performing mandated duties. A devout Christian, Ms. Belforti condemns homosexuality.  Though part of her job is to issue marriage licenses, when a gay couple showed up a few weeks after the Marriage Equality Act took effect in July, she refused to issue one. The couple should come back when her deputy was there, she told them, and ask the deputy to issue the license.

Represented by People for the American Way and the New York firm Proskauer Rose, the couple has threatened to sue, maintaining that the new law requires government employees to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Resign or give us a license, is their message to Ms. Belforti. And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo seems to be on their side.  After the Act passed, Governor Cuomo stated, “The law is the law. When you enforce the laws of the state, you don’t get to pick and choose.” In addition, the Department of Health sent a memorandum to every town clerk in New York indicating that refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples would be a misdemeanor offense.

Ms. Belforti, in turn, has a message for the Governor and the gay couple: “This is about my religious freedom.”

They each have a point.

The First Amendment protects everyone’s right to practice her religion, and Ms. Belforti clearly feels that her right to practice is being compromised. But here’s the problem: Ms. Belforti is an elected public official. Can she refuse to perform her duties if they conflict with a personal belief? The media ask the question but haven’t come to any clear conclusion. As we’ve said, no lawsuits have been filed yet, but LASIS analyzes the chances of Ms. Belforti saving her job if they were.   (more…)

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