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Gay marriage, religion loom as issues in race for town clerk's office

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.

Belforti, 57, is a grandmother who makes artisanal cheese with her husband at their nearby farm.

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 appointment arrangement was quickly tested by a lesbian couple with a farm in the area. When the women appeared at her window at town hall seeking a marriage license, Belforti tried to set up an appointment and they refused.

One of the women, Katie Carmichael, said she felt as though "the wind had gone out of my sails" when Belforti refused them a license.

Belforti's position has drawn criticism from people who feel they are being asked to pay a deputy to do something the clerk should do. It rankled Easter enough to launch his write-in campaign.

The 40-year-old works at a local wine shop and has lived in town for more than a year with his wife and stepson. He had no particular dream to become a town clerk, but he felt the situation demanded that someone step up. Easter, like Belforti, is a Republican. He also is a Christian who said the issue is not his opponent's faith.

"It's not about attacking her beliefs," Easter said, "it's about her beliefs are not letting her do her job."

There are only about 1,000 registered voters in Ledyard, a town where the farms are interrupted by the village of Aurora, home to Wells College.

Belforti expects to get $500 from supporters, which she will use for a mailing to outline her record and explain her stance on marriage licenses. Easter figures he has raised around $1,200 and plans on yard signs to help get his message out.

"I think in the end no matter how this turns out," he said, "that this conversation needs to be had."

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