THE town of Root in upstate New York found itself at the centre of a homophobia row last year when a Christian clerk – Laurel “Sherrie” Eriksen – cited religious reasons for denying a gay couple a marriage license.
The matter came to satisfactory conclusion last week when Erikson had to publicly apologise to Dylan Toften and Thomas Hurd, above. The couple were also awarded $25,000.
This, however, is bound to infuriate Albany Update – “Influencing Legislation and Legislators for the Lord Jesus Christ” – which, in October last year, portrayed Erikson as a the injured party after news of the snub went viral. The Christian site said under this headline:
Last July, the couple visited the clerk’s office in Root, about 50 miles from Albany. After they applied for a marriage licence, Eriksen refused to process their request, claiming she could not do so because of her religious beliefs opposing same-sex marriage.
Clerk Eriksen’s handling of this situation seems reasonable to us; however, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sees the matter differently. Accusing Eriksen of committing ‘an unconscionable act of discrimination’, the Governor has ordered an investigation. Furthermore, Gov. Cuomo has invited the two men to Albany and offered to officiate at their ‘wedding’.
There are several problems here. First, New York’s so-called Marriage Equality Act – which would not have become law without the Gov. Cuomo’s support and advocacy– contains no language allowing public employees with faith-based objections to opt out of providing same-sex ‘marriage’ licenses.
Second, New York has not passed a state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA); if it had, Eriksen’s rights of conscience would likely be protected here. In this situation, accommodating Eriksen’s beliefs would not have caused the two men to incur any hardship in obtaining a license. The men were not scheduled to ‘marry’ until August 18; they had plenty of time to make an appointment with the Deputy Clerk or to visit the Canajoharie Town Clerk’s Office (just seven miles away, and open Monday through Friday) instead.
If Gov. Cuomo wants to point fingers in this situation, he should look in the mirror and point them at himself for his failure to enact laws that protect the rights and freedoms of all New Yorkers – not just those who share his social and political views.
Here’s the bottom line: Public employees should not be forced into situations where they must either violate God’s laws, violate man’s laws, or quit their jobs. Please keep Town Clerk Sherrie Eriksen in your prayers.
Toften and Hurd sued, alleging that the refusal violated New York’s Marriage Equality Act, as well as federal and state civil rights laws.
The couple subsequently obtained a licence in the nearby town of Cobleskill and were eventually married.
Last Thursday, Lambda Legal, representing Toften and Hurd, reached a settlement with the town. As part of the settlement, Eriksen has agreed to abide by the town’s official policy, which states that any qualified couples who apply for a marriage license must be granted one, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, said in a statement.
We are pleased to reach this settlement with the Town of Root which reaffirms its duty to treat all couples with the same dignity and respect under the law. No government official should be able to refuse to perform their duties because of a constituent’s identity, sex, or sexual orientation.
The law recognizes the equal dignity of same-sex couples, and so too must every government official. We hope this serves as a reminder to government officials in every town – no matter its size – that marriage equality is the law of the land and that religious beliefs do not grant a license to discriminate.
At the town Board meeting last Wednesday, Eriksen read aloud the public apology she issued to Toften and Hurd.
In my capacity as town clerk, it is my responsibility to provide marriage licenses to all couples, regardless of sex or sexual orientation, so long as they meet all applicable New York State legal requirements. As such, my office, and I personally, will issue marriage licenses to any couple, without exception, who is legally entitled to be issued one.
On July 30th of last year, there was an unfortunate incident involving Mr. Thomas Hurd and Mr. Dylan Toften who came to my office seeking a marriage license. I am sorry for any harm or inconvenience my actions caused the couple.
The couple celebrated their victory, saying they feel “vindicated and grateful” that the town will respect their family and all other same-sex couples going forward.
Toften said in a statement.
We are happy the state of New York supports our marriage and that we were able to not allow this one town clerk in our town to get away with violating the law and discriminating against LGBT families.