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Gay marriage an issue in town clerk's race

LEDYARD, N.Y. -- Longtime town clerk Rose Marie Belforti handles building permits, hunting licenses and government records for people in this farm-heavy Finger Lakes community. Marriage licenses are a different story, because of her faith.

Shortly after New York became the sixth and largest state to sanction gay marriage this summer, Belforti told town board members her Christian beliefs preclude her from issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Her solution, to have her office issue all marriage licenses by appointment so a deputy can handle them, has irked some people.

And one, Ed Easter, is challenging her as a write-in candidate, saying "what she is doing is wrong."

Improbably, gay marriage and religion loom as issues in the Nov. 8 race for a part-time, $12,000-a-year clerk's job in this town of gently sloping hills on Cayuga Lake.

Voters are posed with the question: Where is the line between an elected official's public duty and private beliefs? "I want to do what the Bible tells me to do," Belforti said, sitting in her small town hall office on a recent day.

"I realized that I can't do this," she said. "There are too many references in the Bible that say this is not right." Belforti, 57, is a grandmother who makes artisanal cheese with her husband at their nearby farm.

Since her election in 2001, she has staffed the town hall every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning. On a recent shift, she wore black jeans and cowboy boots as she answered the phone and distributed forms at the service window.

When a father and son came for hunting licenses, she knew their names.

Belforti was on a glide path to re-election when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York lawmakers approved the same-sex marriage measure June 24. The bill was passed only with the last-minute support of four fence-sitting Republicans state senators, and advocates on both sides of the issue are trying to influence their political fate in legislative elections next year.

But some of the first government officials affected by the new law are the municipal clerks who issue marriage licenses. Two clerks in rural upstate resigned rather than violate their religious beliefs by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. Cuomo had warned that clerks don't get to choose which laws to obey.

More commonly, clerks in New York City and elsewhere went out of their way to accommodate gay couples who wanted to get married as soon as the law was enacted July 24.

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