Confronting bias at town hall

ROOT, N.Y. _ Something seemed fishy. Something was fishy.

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, Albany Times

ROOT, N.Y. _ Something seemed fishy. Something was fishy.

When Margrethe Lauber and Susan MacLeod, excited to take advantage of New York's legalization of gay marriage, went to the Root town clerk to apply for a marriage license, they were told to make an appointment and come back later. They did.

Town Clerk Laurel "Sherrie" Eriksen still didn't seem ready for them when Lauber and MacLeod returned, asking them to wait for the arrival of another person. When the woman finally arrived, Lauber and MacLeod watched in confusion as a flustered Eriksen guided her, step by step, through the process.

Lauber and MacLeod began to realize what was happening. Eriksen didn't want her hands on their marriage license. She wanted somebody else to do it.

"It became surreal and awkward," said Lauber, a SUNY Cobleskill professor who has lived with MacLeod in Root since 2005. "We knew for sure that she did not want to do it for us."

That was six years ago. Last month, Dylan Toften and Thomas Hurd arrived at the Root town building, in rural Montgomery County, for a marriage license. When Eriksen refused them and told them to make an appointment, they also became suspicious that the clerk had an issue with their license.

Their suspicions were confirmed when Robert Subik, Root's town attorney, acknowledged that Eriksen has a religious objection to gay marriage and declines to process the licenses. She requires marrying couples to make an appointment, and, if they are gay, turns the work over to others.

When Toften and Hurd complained about the discrimination on social media, their story reverberated around New York, gained widespread media attention and led the state Division of Human Rights to, at the request of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, launch an investigation into whether Eriksen has been violating the law.

Lauber and MacLeod were deeply upset when they heard _ and they are regretful. If only they had spoken up six years ago, Lauber told me, maybe they could have spared Toften and Hurd from a painful experience.

"We should have done more so that they could enjoy their day," Lauber said.

It's hard to fault the women for not doing more. Though polls show that a strong majority of Americans approve of it now, gay marriage was controversial in 2012. And Root is a very small place, and Lauber admits to feeling some fear over what it might mean to be prominently gay and calling out a popular elected official.

"I wasn't interested in going to war with our neighbors," Lauber said.

The couple had another reason for staying quiet. Publicizing their treatment would have meant that their marriage, their happy occasion, would forever be tied to an ugly controversy. They didn't want that. Who would?

"I didn't want to make her part of our marriage," Lauber said. "The important thing was to get the license and not put her in the memory of our event."

Eriksen, re-elected without opposition last year, has declined to comment on the controversy. Town Supervisor Gary Kamp has not returned phone calls. According to the Daily Gazette, Kamp said in a statement read at the last board meeting that Eriksen has "always performed the duties of town clerk in a proper and professional manner."

That's wrong, because her refusal to give same-sex marriage licenses to gay couples is anything but proper. It's an unlawful violation of her oath.

Could a town clerk who is an animal rights activist cite moral objections to deny a hunting or fishing license? Of course not.

Don't confuse Eriksen's stance with the one taken by the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado and other business owners who oppose gay marriage. A town clerk is not running a private business. Eriksen is a government employee whose job includes issuing marriage licenses. This is not about religious liberty.

Eriksen's stance, said Lauber, is also not a good representation of what she and MacLeod, who are in their 50s, have found in Root. It is an individualistic, live-and-let live town. She doesn't want to take away her neighbors' guns, she said, and they don't want to take away her marriage license.

"I don't want people to trash Root," Lauber said. "We have really wonderful neighbors."

But this time, she isn't going to let Eriksen's discrimination pass. Lauber spoke out at the last Town Board meeting _ the first she has attended _ and she intends to keep doing so until Eriksen either resigns or changes her methods.

When two people are getting married, Lauber said, they are on a cloud. They're excited, euphoric even. But nothing ruins that feeling like a reminder that some still see your marriage as less worthy or being treated like a second-class citizen in your own hometown.

No government official has the right to make people feel that way, in Root or anywhere else.

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

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