ROOT – The gay couple informed by Root Town Clerk Sherrie Eriksen that she would not sign off on their marriage license because of a religious objection urged her to step down during a packed Town Board meeting Wednesday night.
Along with other gay couples and supporters, Thomas Hurd and Dylan Toften said Eriksen should resign or the board should remove her from her office, citing state and federal law that guarantees gay couples the right to marry.
“If we allow public servants to pick and choose who they serve based on personal objections, then we open up serious issues,” Hurd said during the meeting. “I hope Mrs. Eriksen understands what’s going on and will resign … so somebody willing to do all of the job and follow the law can.”
Hurd and Toften attempted to obtain a marriage license at Root Town Hall last month, but were told by Eriksen to return with an appointment with her deputy, and that she didn’t complete licenses for same-sex couples because of a religious objection.
Root town Supervisor Gary Kamp read a prepared statement before opening Wednesday's meeting to public comments, saying Eriksen had “always performed the duties of town clerk in a proper and professional manner.” He also rejected the notion that the town had denied a marriage license to the same-sex couple.
Kamp said the town clerk has the discretion to set the procedures for obtaining marriage and other licenses at Town Hall, and to set her own business hours. He said the Town Board was not involved in those decisions, adding that couples seeking a marriage license often come in without all the proper paperwork, and that was why Hurd and Toften were asked to set up an appointment ahead of time.
“The town of Root never denied a same-sex couple a marriage license,” he said, citing the couple’s decision to not return to Root for their license but to instead get one in a nearby town. “They chose not to resume the process.”
Town officials prohibited video and audio recordings during the meeting, and promised to remove anyone who was seen using a cellphone to record during the meeting. The room filled to its 80-person occupancy limit, while other people waited outside during the hourlong meeting.
About a dozen people spoke up during the meeting, including other same-sex couples who called Root home. Most of the speakers supported Hurd and Toften, and also called on Eriksen to resign or on the board to remove her from office.
During the meeting, Margrethe Lauber said she and her wife had similarly sought a marriage license from Eriksen in 2012, shortly after the state had legalized same-sex marriage. Lauber said Eriksen asked them to schedule an appointment to come back and meet with her deputy. They set up the appointment and returned, but the other clerk was running late.
Expanding on her story after the meeting, Lauber said that someone other than Eriksen came in to the office and filled out the form on a computer as Eriksen described the process. Lauber said she didn’t know whether the person who filled out the license was actually the deputy clerk.
When she spoke during the meeting, Lauber said that while she and her wife suspected Eriksen harbored objections to their same-sex marriage, they didn’t want to press the issue and cause a stir within the community.
“I apologize to Dylan and Thomas for not doing something more so they could’ve walked in here and enjoyed their day, which they are entitled to,” Lauber said.
Many of the speakers during the public-comment period were gay men and women who live in the area. Many said they didn’t feel discriminated against within the community, but were troubled about what unfolded with Hurd, Toften and Eriksen.
“Bigotry, even disguised as religious beliefs, has no place in local or state government,” John Bartenstein, who lives in Root with his husband, said during the meeting.
“Our government is of the people and for the people. … When you are elected as a government official, you are representing the people,” said Kevin Hammer, a gay man who grew up in Montgomery County and now lives in Schenectady. “It’s for the people, not for the straight people, not for the Christian people, for all the people.”
Other speakers urged the Town Board to consider the impact that more media coverage of a dispute over a same-sex marriage license would have on the community’s reputation, and suggested the board would put the town in legal jeopardy if it stood by Eriksen.
After the meeting, Hurd and Toften said they had spoken with an attorney and were considering their legal options. They also said they planned to keep pushing their case that Eriksen was unfit for her position.
Two speakers during the public comments appeared to mount a defense of Eriksen: One said he and his wife were also asked to make an appointment to get their marriage license even though they had known Eriksen for years; another said the request that the same-sex couple return with an appointment was simply a bureaucratic issue.
Eriksen did not respond publicly during the meeting and didn’t comment after the meeting had concluded. The only time she spoke during the meeting was when she read the oath of office to swear in a new Town Board member.
“Do you promise to support the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the state of New York … ?” she said as she delivered the oath.