A gay couple were disappointed Monday morning when they asked to be married at the Litchfield Town Office and were turned away, though the town clerk and deputy town clerk are authorized to perform weddings.
The incident, described as a misunderstanding by the clerks, occurred on the third day that gay couples were able to wed in Maine since 53 percent of voters approved same-sex marriage in November.
Gay rights advocates and others say the incident shows that municipal officials and others who are notaries public must review and define their wedding policies to avoid discrimination and possible violations of the Maine Human Rights Act.
Rich Hirschmann, 56, and Richard Acker, 57, say being turned away from their Town Office was shocking and hurtful.
“It made me feel less than human,” Hirschmann said. “Like our rights don’t count.”
Shortly after 9 a.m. Monday, the town clerk’s office in rural Litchfield, near Augusta, issued a marriage license to Hirschmann and Acker, who have lived together for three years.
However, when the men asked if one of four women working in the clerk’s office was a notary public who could marry them, as is the case in many municipalities, their hopes of tying the knot on Monday were dashed.
They say a part-time deputy clerk took them aside and explained that two notaries worked in the office, “but they’re both shy about things like this,” Hirschmann recalled Monday afternoon.
“She chose her words carefully, which gave the distinct impression that it wouldn’t be an issue for heterosexual couples,” Hirschmann said. “She said we could talk to (the two notaries), but she made it clear that it wouldn’t do any good.”
The clerk gave them the names of two notaries in the Litchfield area who would marry them. The two men left the Town Office and drove to work at their Maine-themed gift shop, Portland Rock Lobster, in Portland’s Old Port district.
Most municipalities employ a few notaries to administer oaths of office, witness official proceedings and endorse legal documents. Maine law also allows notaries to perform marriages, but it’s not a requirement.
Doris Parlin, Litchfield’s town clerk, said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon that she didn’t realize the two men wanted to get married.
As a notary, Parlin said, she officiates one or two marriages each year, but she generally avoids the practice because she has a soft voice.
“It’s not something we do very often,” Parlin said. “I really don’t like to marry people. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware they wanted to get married.”
Asked if she was reluctant to perform gay marriages, Parlin said she wasn’t, “but I can’t say I believe that’s what marriage should be.”
Trudy Lamoreau, Litchfield’s deputy town clerk, also is a notary. She said she stopped officiating weddings a year ago and has never married anyone at work.
“It’s nothing personal,” Lamoreau said. “I just stopped doing weddings.”
Lamoreau strongly denied that her decision was influenced by personal feelings about gay marriage.
Lezley Sturtevant, a part-time deputy clerk, is the person who advised Hirschmann and Acker on the availability of a notary to marry them.
Sturtevant said she spoke with the two men because Parlin and Lamoreau were busy.
“Our lobby was right full of people,” she said in a telephone interview.
Sturtevant didn’t mince words when explaining the likelihood of anyone getting married at the Litchfield Town Office.
“Our notaries don’t perform marriages,” she said.
Maine law requires all municipal clerks to issue marriage licenses to legally qualified couples or they face as much as a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. Many clerks also are notaries.
The Secretary of State’s Office issued a written advisory in December, explaining the rights and responsibilities of notaries under the new marriage law, whether they work independently or for a municipality.
A notary can refuse to perform a marriage because Maine law doesn’t require notaries to perform weddings, according to the advisory.
“But if they make a practice of marrying people and they refuse to marry a couple because they’re gay, they could be subject to a discrimination claim under the Maine Human Rights Act,” said Barbara Redmond, deputy secretary of state.
A discrimination claim also could be filed if a notary refuses to marry a couple because of a person’s race, physical or mental disability, religion, creed, age, ancestry or national origin.
Redmond declined to comment on the Litchfield case as described by a reporter. She said she had heard no other similar complaints since gay marriage became legal.
Mary Bonauto, a Portland lawyer who works with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said this is a watershed moment in Maine marriage law that likely will lead to some confusion, disappointment and possible violations of Maine’s civil rights law.
“From this point forward, (notaries) get to decide what their policy will be going forward,” Bonauto said. “Inevitably, there’s going to be a learning curve.”
If a notary works as municipal clerk, there really is no learning curve.
“If cities or towns perform marriages, they have to perform marriages for everyone,” said Ian Grady, spokesman for Equality Maine. “Many towns are going through the process of deciding whether they will offer this service.”
Grady said there are more than 20,000 notaries public in Maine, many of whom are eager to perform gay marriages.
“We can help people find someone to marry them who is willing and supportive,” Grady said.
For Rich Hirschmann and Richard Acker, the disappointment of their first attempt to get married will take a while to wear off. As new business owners, they had hoped to start the new year as a married couple, Acker said. They’re not sure whether they’ll take any legal action.
“We’re just kind of reeling right now,” Hirschmann said. “We didn’t think this would happen in our town.”
Both men were surprised to be turned away from a Town Office where they had registered to vote, paid taxes, purchased dog licenses and registered vehicles numerous times without incident. The experience was particularly offensive to Hirschmann, a retired career Navy officer and former Portland firefighter and paramedic.
“I worked for the government my whole life,” Hirschmann said. “I never had the option to say, ‘No, I don’t want to do my duty, because it goes against my political or religious beliefs or because it makes me feel bad.’ “