New York DA: Clerks Who Refuse To Issue Marriage Licenses To Gay Couples Will Be ‘Subject To Criminal Prosecution’

Kathleen Rice, the district attorney for Nassau County, New York, is warning county and city clerks that any attempts to deny gay and lesbian couples marriage licenses under the state’s recently enacted marriage equality law will be met with swift legal action. The notice comes on the heels of reports that Barbara MacEwen, town clerk of Volney in Oswego County, may refuse to issue the licenses on religious grounds. Rice took a firm stance in a letter to clerks in Nassau County:

The Marriage Equality Act provides that an application for a marriage license cannot be denied on the grounds that the applicant parties are of the same sex and the law affords no discretion to public officials charged with granting marriage licenses. Therefore, any such refusal may be subject to criminal prosecution.

The religious exemptions in the Marriage Equality Act are inapplicable to town and city clerks serving in their license-granting roles, and a public official’s intentional refusal to issue marriage licenses to qualified same-sex couples may constitute Official Misconduct, a Class A misdemeanor defined in section 195.00 of the New York State Penal Law.

Indeed, while the law’s exemptions protect religious organizations and affiliated individuals from accommodating same-sex marriages, it does not absolve city employees from fulfilling their job responsibilities.

Some anti-gay groups are touting MacEwen’s resistance and will undoubtedly work to undermine the law and insert themselves into press reports about the very first New York marriages. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), for instance, has already announced that it intends to protest same-sex marriages in Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, and New York City — the districts of the four Republican senators “who broke with their party and voted to pass the marriage equality bill.”