Prosecutor weighs charges in New Paltz case

BY admin

March 09 2004 1:00 AM ET

The prosecutor who criminally charged a New York State mayor for performing same-sex weddings is reviewing whether to also charge two ministers who stepped in to marry gay couples who did not have marriage licenses.

New Paltz, N.Y., mayor Jason West faces 19 misdemeanors and possible jail time for officiating at weddings on February 27 for couples who lacked a license. With West under a restraining order, a group of New Paltz residents lined up two Unitarian Universalist ministers to perform about a dozen gay weddings Saturday in New Paltz, a small town 75 miles north of New York City.

Ulster County district attorney Donald Williams said Monday that the latest twist in the debate over gay marriage has put his office on new legal ground. He said it would take days to determine whether the ministers could face charges similar to those filed against West. But Williams said there clearly is a difference in the ceremonies performed by the ministers. "It is obviously distinguishable because in the case of Mayor West, he is an elected official who has taken an oath to follow the law," Williams said.

Unitarian Universalist ministers have been performing same-sex ceremonies for decades. One potential question arises concerning the weekend's ceremonies: Were they conducted as religious or civil ceremonies?

The Reverend Kay Greenleaf, one of the two ministers who officiated Saturday, said the ceremonies were like ones she has performed previously, although shorter. However, she said she also signed an affidavit for the couples and considers the ceremonies civil. In his spate of highly publicized same-sex ceremonies, West invoked his powers as mayor. Greenleaf, of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Poughkeepsie, said she declared the couples joined "in the name of love and justice."

Williams said law enforcement officials would look at the language used during the ceremonies.

Jay Weiser, lead author of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York's 2001 report on same-sex marriage, said any minister can perform a commitment ceremony. The issue under New York law is whether a marriage can be solemnized without a license, he said. "I think we're now in an area of the law that few people have considered before the last few weeks," Weiser said.

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