Mayor charged in same-sex weddings

New Paltz, N.Y., official performed ceremonies for couples without licenses

March 03, 2004|By Sumathi Reddy and Andrew Metz | Sumathi Reddy and Andrew Metz,NEWSDAY

ALBANY, N.Y. - The mayor of New Paltz was charged yesterday with 19 criminal counts for performing weddings for gay couples, an act of defiance that thrust the small community into the center of the national debate over same-sex marriage.

Jason West, the 26-year-old mayor from the Green Party, is scheduled to appear in court today on charges that he broke the state's domestic relations law by solemnizing 25 marriages for couples who had no licenses, an unclassified misdemeanor punishable with up to a $500 fine and a year in jail.

Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams said a jail term wasn't being considered.

The ceremonies Friday also led to a face-off between the state's top two elected officials, Republican Gov. George E. Pataki and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat who has his eye on a gubernatorial bid.

Spitzer's office says it is days away from issuing a clarifying opinion on gay marriages and the mayor's actions, but New Paltz officials took action on their own.

New Paltz police Chief Raymond Zappone, who delivered the summons to West yesterday afternoon at the village hall, said: "It was determined that we have significant, sufficient evidence to take the charge forward."

West said yesterday that he was "incredibly disappointed."

"Apparently, it's a crime to uphold the Constitution of New York state." He said he is planning to hold more ceremonies Saturday.

West's lawyer, E. Joshua Rosenkranz of Manhattan, said his client would plead not guilty because he did not break any laws. "Jason West does not belong in a criminal prosecution any more than Rosa Parks did when she decided to sit on a bus."

West and his attorneys have said that New York law is gender-neutral and that as a mayor he has the authority to solemnize marriages. They have said that such marriages are recognized under New York law even if they are performed without a marriage license.

Pataki insisted yesterday that the state's marriage law is clear. "Marriage is between a man and a woman, and as public officials we should enforce that law," Pataki said.

Pressure is mounting on Spitzer, who last week refused the governor's request for an injunction to prevent and nullify the marriages.

On Monday, Spitzer said his office was reviewing the thicket of legal issues and would offer a clarifying opinion soon. He repeated his refusal to seek the injunction called for by the governor and other elected officials. And he said law enforcement officials in New Paltz had every right to pursue legal action.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger softened his stance on same-sex marriages during an appearance Monday on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

Schwarzenegger said such unions would be "fine with me" if the courts or voters change state law and make them legal.

Until now, Schwarzenegger has sent mixed messages, ordering state Attorney General Bill Lockyer to take immediate steps to stop San Francisco from allowing them, but doing nothing to enforce that.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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