Mayor Jason West of New Paltz, N.Y., on Friday made his village the first town on the East Coast to perform marriages for same-sex couples.
Lesbian and gay couples began gathering late Friday morning at Village Hall following an announcement by Mayor West's office that he would begin performing ceremonies at noon. West performed about a dozen marriages. "We've been waiting for this for a long time, and we feel blessed and awestruck to finally see this day," said Jennifer Smits, an English instructor at the State University of New York. Smits and her partner, Dana Wegener, a chef at a local restaurant, married Friday after eight years together. "Dana and I have been talking about what it would like to be able to marry for four or five years now. We're not just happy for ourselves--we're happy for our families and for all the couples out there who have always dreamed of being able to be married and now may be able to."
West, who won office last year on the Green Party ticket, said state law on domestic marriages is gender-neutral and that the state constitution, which he is obligated to uphold, requires equal protection under law. "We as a society have no right to discriminate in marriage any more than we have the right to discriminate when someone votes or when someone wants to hold office," said West, 26. "The people who would forbid gays from marrying in this country are those who would have made Rosa Parks sit in the back of the bus."
West has thrust New Paltz--home to 5,400 people and a state university campus 75 miles north of New York City--into a national debate over whether same-sex couples are entitled to marry. On Thursday the state health department said that New York's domestic relations law does not allow marriage licenses for same-sex couples and that state courts have validated marriages only between a man and a woman. "A municipal clerk who issues a marriage license outside these guidelines--and any person who solemnizes such a marriage--would be violating state law and subject to the penalties in law," the department said in a statement.
West said he reads the law differently. "For a marriage to be legal in this state, all that's required is for it to be properly solemnized by someone with authority to do so," he told the CNN cable network Friday. "I'm fully able to do that."
Several legal experts also disagreed with the health department statement, saying the law does not specifically ban such weddings. New York's attorney general has not issued a ruling on the question.
Vincent Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School, said nothing in New York law explicitly prohibits same-sex weddings but that the framers "clearly were contemplating opposite-sex marriages."
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, applauded the young mayor's move. "It's equal rights for gay couples who should be entitled to equal treatment under the law and to marriage and the protection of the family that heterosexuals have," she said.