Gay marriage is legal in New York. Then why is Deidre DiBaggio and her partner Katie Carmichael suing town clerk Rose Marie Belforti, in New York’s Finger Lakes region?
As a matter of conscience, town clerk Belforti refuses to officiate at a same-sex marriage; she won’t even issue them a wedding license herself, deferring to her assistant who doesn’t share her scruples.
It’s a matter of conscience, Belforti says, and would be a violation of the separation of church and state to compel her to act contrary to her religious teachings.
This is a classic case of two rights in conflict: the right to equal treatment under the law and the right to personal conscience. Belforti says that “New York law protects my right to hold both my job and my beliefs. I’m not supposed to have to leave my beliefs at the door at my government job.”
Which is it then: the right of DiBaggio and Carmichael to be treated like all other couples or the right of Belforti to act in accordance with her religious teachings?
While religion has a special place in society that sometimes gives it a privileged position, that doesn’t place it above the law of the state when it threatens another enshrined and legal right.
Separating state and church brought with it advances in the protection of individual conscience and religious practice. No longer would people be forced to conform to the dictates of one religion backed by the power of the state. The early history of the United States hinges on precisely this expansion of personal choice. It is because of the disestablishment of state sanctioned religion that religion flourishes in this country in unique ways, where, for example, in the radius of three miles of my house there are dozens of Protestant denominations, a Catholic church, a synagogue and a mosque. Go just a little further and there are Sikh and Hindu temples.
Each religion is free to worship and practice as it pleases. But there are limits. Human and animal sacrifices are forbidden and structures must meet building codes. What to do then when religions conflict with secular law in the public square, as it has in upstate New York? Whose rights are to be protected: the town clerk’s or the couple seeking a license? The clerk has tried to work around the problem by having her deputy issue the license. This wasn’t good enough for DiBaggio and Carmichael, who were told by Belforti to come back later when her assistant would help them out.
Some residents want to vote her out of office before courts have an opportunity to hear the suit brought by the couple. But an election doesn’t settle the matter, no matter the outcome. Our basic rights aren’t a popularity contest. A right is inalienable, no matter how unpopular.
Belforti has the right to her opinion and no one has the right to force her to issue a marriage license. And DiBaggio and Carmichael have the right to be treated the same as any other couple. Belforti says, “For me to participate in the same-sex marriage application process I don’t feel is right. God doesn’t want me to do this, so I can’t do what God doesn’t want me to do.” However, as a town clerk, she is an agent of the state. Gov. Cuomo’s is right in this case. “When you enforce the laws of the state, you don’t get to pick and choose,” he said.
Belforti can be true to her religion by resigning from the clerkship and DiBaggio and Carmichael can be treated as any other couple who want the state to sanction their union with a marriage license.