Opinion

Opinion

Clerk should treat same-sex couples fairly

Posted August 2, 2018 7:17 a.m. EDT

ROOT, N.Y. _ With corn growing across the street and a field of cattle out back, the municipal office building in the town of Root sits amid Montgomery County's rural splendor.

It was here that Dylan Toften and Thomas Hurd tried to get a marriage license. And it was here that Town Clerk Laurel "Sherrie" Eriksen denied them the license because Toften and Hurd are gay.

Toften posted a complaint Monday on Facebook. It reverberated around New York.

Gay marriage has been legal in this state since 2011 and nationally since 2015. The most dire predictions about what legalization would bring seem silly now, and controversy has largely faded. Polls show that a solid majority of Americans approve of it being legal, but Eriksen isn't among them.

"She has a religious objection and has referred the matter to her deputy clerk, who has no such objection and will issue the license when they make an appointment," Town Attorney Robert Subik said in an email to The Daily Gazette, which first reported this story.

Subik said Eriksen had another reason for rejecting Toften and Hurd's application: They didn't first make an appointment.

Would a straight couple have been denied a license for showing up unannounced? I tend to doubt it.

On Facebook, Toften said he and Hurd, who have not spoken publicly about their experience, went to Cobleskill to get their license. They shouldn't have needed to do that. Eriksen is required to abide by the law. She is paid by taxpayers to issue marriage licenses to straight and gay couples alike.

In a country that cherishes freedom of religion, everybody is entitled to have a religious objection to gay marriage. But it is not OK for a public employee to impose her religious beliefs on others.

"I've lived in this region for awhile and I know how people are," Toften wrote on Facebook. "But when you take an oath you are surrendering your views to fulfill that oath."

It isn't even accurate to conflate Eriksen's stance with the one taken by the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, who also had a religious objection to gay marriage. Owner Jack Phillips argued that making a custom-designed cake is protected expression under the First Amendment, and that he could not be compelled to exercise that expression for a gay couple.

The Supreme Court, in a recent ruling, essentially ducked the question.

Eriksen, though, is not a private business owner. She is a government employee and issuing marriage licenses is part of her job. This is not a religious liberty case.

Look at it another way: Could a town clerk who is an animal-rights activist cite moral objections to deny a hunting or fishing license? Of course not.

On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed the state's Division of Human Rights to investigate what he called "an unconscionable act of discrimination."

A few hours later I drove to Root, population 1,700, to get Eriksen's side of the story, but she wasn't talking. She wouldn't even open the door to the town office building.

Visitors were required to ring a doorbell, and Eriksen communicated with me and a couple of television reporters on the scene only via an intercom.

"I'm not talking to the press at this time," she said. "Please leave the premises."

Residents arriving in the midafternoon heat were confused by the locked door and assumed the office was closed. When a woman hoping to pay a bill rang the bell, Eriksen asked why she was there before saying, "I'm going to unlock the door. I'm asking that you close it immediately and do not let anybody in."

In my nearly two decades of journalism, I've never seen anything like it.

Eriksen wasn't the only person hiding. Supervisor Gary Kamp, all four members of the Town Council and Subik, the attorney, did not return requests for comment.

That makes sense, in a way. When something is indefensible, nobody wants to defend it.

But this isn't going away. Eventually, Eriksen and other town officials will have to answer questions, such as: Were town officials aware that Eriksen would refuse to issue a marriage license to gay couples? And if so, do they condone this discrimination?

Now that Eriksen's failure to uphold the law has been exposed, she has two choices. She can agree to treat gay couples equally from here on out, or she can resign.

cchurchill(at)timesunion.com - 518-454-5442 - Twitter: (at)chris_churchill

Contact columnist Chris Churchill at 518-454-5442 or email cchurchill(at)timesunion.com

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