A gay couple who asked to be married at the Litchfield Town Office on Monday morning got turned away, even 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 legally in Maine.

Gay-rights advocates and others say it 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 it was shocking and hurtful to be turned away from their town office.

“It made me feel less than human,” Hirschmann said. “Like our rights don’t count.”

In November, 53 percent of Maine voters approved legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. The law took effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

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.

But when the men asked if any of the four women working in the clerk’s office was a notary public who could marry them, their hopes of tying the knot Monday were dashed.

A part-time deputy clerk took them aside and said that two notaries work 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.

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 at one or two marriages each year, but she generally avoids them 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 is reluctant to perform gay marriages, Parlin said she isn’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 at weddings a year ago and has never married anyone during work hours.

“It’s nothing personal,” Lamoreau said. “I just stopped doing weddings.”

Lamoreau strongly denied that her decision was influenced by 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 in 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. Those who don’t face as much as a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

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 municipalities. A notary can refuse to perform marriages, the advisory said, because Maine law doesn’t require notaries to perform them.

“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 can 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 similar complaints since gay marriage became legal.

Mary Bonauto, a Portland lawyer who works with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said this is a watershed period 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,” Bonauto said. “Inevitably, there’s going to be a learning curve.”

If a notary works as a 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 EqualityMaine. “Many towns are going through the process of deciding whether they will offer this service.”

Grady said Maine has more than 20,000 notaries public, many of whom are eager to perform same-sex 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 will 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, bought dog licenses and registered vehicles numerous times without incident.

The experience was particularly offensive to Hirschmann, a retired career Navy officer and a former Portland firefighter and paramedic.

“I worked for the government my whole life,” he 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.’ “

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com