Town clerk in N.Y. resigns over new gay marriage law

July 21, 2011

Granby, N.Y. (RNS) Ruth Sheldon was knee-deep in work. As town clerk in
Granby in upstate Oswego County, she was busy with the census of the
town's dogs.

Workers were going door to door, counting canines and letting people
know that every dog over 4 months old needs a license. As the project
progresses, piles of paperwork land on Sheldon's desk for processing.
And then there were those phone calls. "I'm getting so many
distractions from these reporters and so forth that are calling, and I
have an enormous amount of work to do," she said.

The reporters weren't interested in the dog census. They were
calling about her decision to resign her post rather than honor the
state's same-sex marriage law. Her last day is Saturday (July 23) -- the
day before the law goes into effect.

Every time the phone rang, Sheldon, 65, had to shift gears from
counting dogs to discussing matters of law and faith. Like the other 931
town clerks across the state, she is suddenly on the front lines of an
issue that is drawing international attention.

Sheldon, a 16-year-veteran of the office, is the second clerk to
submit her resignation since same-sex marriage was legalized in New York
last month. Laura Fotusky, clerk of Barker in Broome County, was the
first.

Some clerks, like John Copanas of Syracuse, have embraced the
opportunity to issue licenses to couples eager to wed. Copanas will be
working Sunday to help those who want to get a jump on the process.
Others have wrestled over whether their religious beliefs should trump
their civic duty.

Rosemary Centi, the clerk in Guilderland, outside of Albany, will
continue in her job despite her religious concerns. She says she will
issue marriage licenses but that she will no longer perform marriage
ceremonies.

Barbara MacEwen, the town clerk of Volney, Oswego County, had
considered resigning but decided to stay on. She is a friend of
Sheldon's and spoke with her before Sheldon submitted her resignation.
"She told me what she was planning on doing, and I said, `If that's
the way the Lord is leading you, then that's what you should be doing,"'
MacEwen said.

Sheldon said her decision was a difficult but obvious one. She
believes the Bible expressly forbids homosexuality, and that is all she
needs to know. "I believe the Bible is the word of God," she said. "I
could not violate my conscience and my faith by signing a document that
I feel I cannot sign."

It is quite possible that Sheldon would never have been faced with
the reality of signing a same-sex marriage certificate. She has signed
only 12 marriage licenses this year -- and all last year she signed 13.

But she says she couldn't take that chance.

"If I had to come to work every day with trepidation that somebody
might come in asking for that kind of license, it would be very
difficult to do my job," she said. "And if I recommended that they go to
another town or city clerk I would be opening myself up to
discrimination, and it's not my desire to discriminate against other
people."

Sheldon, a member of the Fulton (N.Y.) Alliance Church, says she
didn't want to comment on whether same-sex marriage is a civil rights
issue. "If you ask black people they will tell you that they don't think
it is a civil rights issue," she said. "I don't think it's for me to
say. I'm standing on the word of God."

She said she is giving up a job she loves and a salary and health
insurance package of $32,760 a year. She lives with her husband, Robert,
a retired dairy farmer, and they will celebrate their 38th wedding
anniversary next month. "I know how to live on a little and I know how
to live in abundance, and if I have to live on a little then that will
be it," she said.

Granby Town Supervisor Ed Williamson said he respects Sheldon's
stance and accepted her resignation with regret. But he said if he were
in her position he would act differently.

"My own personal belief is I would sign (the licenses)," he said. "I
feel that because these people pay taxes like anybody else, who are we
to tell them how to live?"

Bruce Carter, president of the CNY (Central New York) Pride Task
Force, said Sheldon is doing the appropriate thing. "She has the right
to her religious beliefs. She just doesn't have the right to impose them
on other people," he said.