What do those words, spoken by the character Polonius*, from Shakespeare's Hamlet mean to you? They are often interpreted as advising us to live in harmony with our conscience. Although there are some people with warped consciences or who don't have consciences, most of us would probably agree that if someone is trying to live consistently in accordance with his or her internal values they are likely attempting to live a "good" life.
Or would we agree with this at all? After all there are other ethical, moral and legal considerations that life requires besides living in harmony with our conscience. Sometimes these considerations conflict. Two recent stories piqued my interest on this.
LEDYARD, N.Y. — Rose Marie Belforti is a 57-year-old cheese maker, the elected town clerk in this sprawling Finger Lakes farming community and a self-described Bible-believing Christian. She believes that God has condemned homosexuality as a sin, so she does not want to sign same-sex marriage licenses; instead, she has arranged for a deputy to issue all marriage licenses by appointment.
But when a lesbian couple who own a farm near here showed up at the town hall last month, the women said they were unwilling to wait.
Now Ms. Belforti is at the heart of an emerging test case, as national advocacy groups look to Ledyard for an answer to how the state balances a religious freedom claim by a local official against a civil rights claim by a same-sex couple.
Ms. Belforti, represented by a Christian legal advocacy group based in Arizona, the Alliance Defense Fund, is arguing that state law requires New York to accommodate her religious beliefs.
“New York law protects my right to hold both my job and my beliefs,” she said in an interview last week, pausing briefly to collect $50 from a resident planning to take 20 loads of refuse to the town dump. “I’m not supposed to have to leave my beliefs at the door at my government job.”
But the couple, Deirdre DiBiaggio and Katie Carmichael of Miami, are arguing that the law requires all clerks in New York to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The couple are being represented by a liberal advocacy organization, People for the American Way, based in Washington. “Gay people have fought so long and hard to get these civil rights,” said Ms. Carmichael, 53, a filmmaker. “To have her basically telling us to get in the back of the line is just not acceptable.”