New York town clerk quits over gay marriage licenses

HUDSON, New York Tue Jul 12, 2011 6:25pm EDT

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HUDSON, New York (Reuters) - A town clerk in western New York has resigned to avoid being forced to sign marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples, citing religious objections to same-sex marriage.

Laura Fotusky, the town clerk in Barker, New York, said in her resignation letter that she will step down on July 21, three days before New York becomes the sixth and largest state to allow gay nuptials.

Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the same sex marriage law last month after the bill narrowly passed the Republican-led state Senate. Its approval in New York is seen as a catalyst for gay marriage elsewhere as well as helping push the issue to the forefront nationally ahead of the 2012 elections.

Much of the debate in New York focused on the scope of protections for those opposed to same-sex marriage. The new law exempts religious groups from performing same-sex marriages but does not extend those protections to individuals, including government employees.

Fotusky was not immediately available for comment, but in her letter, dated July 11, she said she believes the Bible takes precedence over man-made laws.

"The Bible clearly teaches that God created marriage between male and female as a divine gift that preserves families and cultures. Since I love and follow Him, I cannot put my signature on something that is against God," she wrote.

"I would be compromising my moral conscience if I participated in the licensing procedure," she wrote.

According to New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative Christian nonprofit group that circulated Fotusky's letter to the media, she is the first clerk in the state to resign over objections to same-sex nuptials.

But she is not the first to raise concerns. Two weeks ago, the town clerk in the Syracuse suburb of Volney cited her own religious objections and requested that outside help be brought in to sign same-sex marriage licenses.

Cuomo, who had made the legalization of same-sex marriage a top priority this year, told reporters on Tuesday that he agreed with Fotusky's decision to resign because government workers have a responsibility to enforce the law.

"When you enforce the laws of the state, you don't get to pick and choose the laws," Cuomo said.

Conscientious objection among government employees has been an issue in some other states that allow gay marriage.

In Massachusetts, more than a dozen justices of the peace threatened to resign in 2004 after a state court ruled that barring same-sex marriages was unconstitutional, and at least one resigned. In 2000, the town clerk in Tunbridge, Vermont resigned even though state law would have allowed her to appoint someone else to sign marriage licenses.

Robin Fretwell Wilson, a professor at Washington and Lee Law School in Virginia, has lobbied lawmakers in New York and other states to exempt individuals, including government employees, from providing services to same-sex couples. In a 2010 paper, she argued that the religious beliefs of marriage officers should be accommodated as long as they pose no hardship to same-sex couples.

"Forcing a public employee with a religious objection to facilitate a same-sex marriage would be intolerant in the extreme when little is to be gained by such rigid demands," wrote Wilson, who was not available for comment on Tuesday.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Cynthia Johnston)

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