Civil disobedience is a strong form of protest. Obstruction, occupation, and nonviolent forms of breaking the law can change public opinion — just ask Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and the movement that brought down the Egyptian government earlier this year. Now, with civil disobedience making a comeback in America in the Occupy Wall Street movement, one has to wonder if we’re about to move into another phase of political discourse — one that doesn’t first rely on the ballot box to effect change.
Previous readers will remember that in August, I wrote an article about the willingness of some gay marriage opponents to dismiss the validity of the state Legislature’s vote. Since then, the transition process has, for the most part, gone smoothly — but not everywhere.
You can find an example of this difficulty in the western part of New York.
Taking a stand
Rose Marie Belforti, the town clerk of Ledyard, has been engaged in a fight for religious freedom — that is, the freedom to deny the law when it contradicts her beliefs. That denial of the law, in this case, extends to an infringement of the rights afforded to New Yorkers: Belforti has cited her religious beliefs in refusing to sign marriage licenses for gay couples. She is being backed up by the lobbying group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. They might describe this as civil disobedience — nonviolently breaking the law because of deeply held personal convictions.
This isn’t the first time that conservative clerks have found themselves at odds with the new marriage law. Several, including Rosemary Centi of nearby Guilderland, have expressed their personal opposition. They’re free to do so. They shouldn’t be harassed or in any way prevented from expressing that opinion. But by the same token, they should not hold an office in which they believe they have to choose between the law and Christian teachings. Some have resigned, rather than comply — I respect that. Centi, in particular, is no longer serving as the marriage officer but still gives licenses to all eligible couples.
But the case of Rose Marie Belforti is different. She engages in civil disobedience, but still wants to hold on to her job. (She was re-elected last Tuesday.)
The thing about civil disobedience is that you have to accept the consequences of your actions. Obstruct traffic, for instance, and you have to accept being arrested — some Occupy Wall Street protesters are learning that the hard way. By the same token, if you are a town official and you refuse to comply with the law, you should have to step aside.
Instead, Belforti is holding her ground, and is participating in a campaign to encourage others to do the exact same thing.
I believe in freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. But civil disobedience isn’t something that can be reconciled with a job that requires the public trust. What if I were Amish, didn’t believe in cars, and I worked at the DMV? Would I have the right to deny you a driver’s license? Of course not.
Anyone who supports this kind of behavior should know just what they’re encouraging, so let’s take this to an extreme. If we allow those who enforce and administer the law to do so selectively, according to their religion, we need to answer a simple question: Which religions should have this privilege? All religions? Does that include Sharia law? Or just the religion of the majority? In any case, which doctrine is that? Catholicism? Protestantism? Which sect of Protestantism?
Or should we just take a literal view of the matter and read everything literally? If that’s the case, then I suppose Governor Cuomo should order all town clerks to compel the brothers of dead husbands to marry their widows. After all, it’s ordered in Deuteronomy 25: 5-6.
Let’s take this idea to another extreme. If Rose Marie Belforti and the New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms had their way, it would be OK for anyone — not just Christians — to use their government offices for social protest. So would Belforti support a State Liquor Authority official denying someone a liquor license because they believe in prohibition? What of a Buddhist corrections officer who doesn’t believe in the death penalty? What of a policeman who believes in a radical form of Sharia law, and won’t step in to stop domestic abuse? Why not? It’s their religion! After all, why should they have to do something their religion forbids?
Of course, these scenarios I’ve illustrated are absurd. But so is the notion that you can be derelict in your duties as a public official. And equally absurd is the idea that organizations ought to be going around suggesting that public officials revolt against the law of the land.
For the sake of the state of New York, I would hope most public servants continue to understand their duties. As for those who don’t: You are free to believe that your religion trumps state law. You’re also free to believe we should live in a Christian theocracy. Then fight to get the law overturned, but if you can’t follow the law, you shouldn’t be the town clerk. Resign if you can’t perform your duties. As a public servant, you can’t have it both ways.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.
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