National News

Cuomo Opens Investigation Into Denial of Marriage License to Gay Couple

Posted August 2, 2018 7:03 p.m. EDT
Updated August 2, 2018 7:06 p.m. EDT

After a same-sex couple was denied a marriage license in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not only opened an investigation into the case, but he has also offered to officiate the couple’s wedding in Albany.

Dylan Toften and Thomas Hurd sought the license in Root, New York, about 50 miles from Albany. But the town’s clerk, Laurel Eriksen, denied the couple’s request. The Human Rights Division is investigating why Eriksen refused the couple their license.

Toften wrote on Facebook on Monday that Eriksen denied the request because she personally objects to same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Eriksen told Robert Subik, Root’s town attorney, she did not grant the license because the couple had not made an appointment.

Though Eriksen did mention her personal objection to same-sex marriage to the couple, Subik said, she did not deny the couple the license because of her personal views. He said people requesting licenses are required to make appointments in advance because Eriksen is a part-time employee.

Toften deferred comment to the state. Eriksen could not be reached for comment, and Subik said he advised Eriksen to not talk to the news media.

Rachel Tiven, the chief executive of Lambda Legal, a nonprofit that advocates for the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, said this case reflects a growing trend of individuals refusing services to LGBTQ people, particularly following the Supreme Court’s ruling on Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in June. The court sided with a baker who would not make a wedding cake for a gay couple on religious objections.

“There is a campaign to undermine marriage equality by encouraging people to say I have an objection to treating gay couples equally,” Tiven said.

Tiven added that Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has also raised fears of continuing efforts to undermine marriage equality.

In a statement Wednesday, Cuomo called the denial of the wedding license “an unconscionable act of discrimination that goes against our values as New Yorkers.”

“This is an expansion of the Trumpian philosophy: they are against marriage equality and they are substituting their philosophy for the law,” Cuomo said on Twitter. “I don’t care if the clerk is opposed to marriage equality that’s her right but she can’t impose her will onto others in violation of the law.”

Subik said Eriksen informed the couple that the town’s deputy clerk had no objection to issuing a license to a same-sex couple and would assist them if they made an appointment.

“I think she handled it professionally,” he said of Eriksen. “She gave them an option for them to achieve their goal with another person in her office, and they were certainly free to do that.”

He added, “If they make an appointment, the deputy clerk will handle it expeditiously and very professionally.”

Of Cuomo, he said, “His comments are not reflective of the facts of the case, and he’s twisting it around for his own purposes.”

But, Alphonso David, the governor’s counsel, said individuals have obtained licenses from the town without appointments.

“You cannot say I’m not going to provide you a government service because I have a religious objection,” he said.

David said if Eriksen’s denial centered on a procedural issue, she should not have mentioned her religious objections to same-sex marriage.

“If a different-sex couple walked in and requested a marriage license, they would arguably have a marriage license,” he said.

This is not the first time a New York clerk objected to issuing a same-sex marriage license. Rose Marie Belforti, the town clerk of Ledyard in the Finger Lakes region, refused to sign a marriage license in 2011 for a lesbian couple because of her religious beliefs, and instead, she asked her deputy issue it. Not wanting to wait, the couple married elsewhere in the state, said Drew Courtney, a spokesman for the People for the American Way Foundation, which represented the couple.

In a case that got national attention in 2015, Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, was jailed for contempt of court after she prevented the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses.

If the Human Rights Division finds the town’s clerk office in Root violated state law, the division can file a claim against the town or its officers.

“The town has an obligation to make sure that a same-sex couple is treated in the same fashion as a different-sex couple,” David said.