Religious leaders perform same-sex marriages in New York City

BY admin

March 19 2004 12:00 AM ET

A minister and a rabbi officiated at several same-sex marriages in front of New York City Hall on Thursday, while dozens of other clergy members attended to show their support. The event also is a show of solidarity for two Unitarian Universalist ministers who face criminal charges upstate for performing same-sex weddings. "We're calling on clergy around the state performing these kinds of ceremonies to join us in public," said the Reverend Pat Bumgardner, the lesbian pastor of Manhattan's predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church. "We want the same thing as is accorded heterosexual couples, and I've married some of them too."

On Thursday, Bumgardner was to marry two couples, one male and the other female, who had already pledged their commitment in religious ceremonies. The aim of the weddings was to bond the pairs in civil marriages, although the unions' legality is being challenged. The men, Bradley Curry and Mel Bryant, are in their late 30s; each runs a business managing stylists for photo shoots. The female couple are Montel Cherry-Slack, a 30-year-old attorney, and Michelle Cherry-Slack, a 30-year-old administrative assistant at Bumgardner's church on West 36th Street who plans to enter Union Theological Seminary in the fall. They had their last names legally changed to be the same and were joined in what they described as a holy union. "I feel on the one hand excited about the marriage in front of City Hall," said Michelle Cherry-Slack, who met her partner four years ago while both were in law school. "At the same time, it saddens me that we have to do this to get equal treatment. I'll marry Montel over and over again in order to gain legal recognition. I'll be with her forever. And she says to me, 'I'll marry you a million times if I have to."' A third couple, two women, were married by Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, founder of the Kolot Chayeinu congregation in Brooklyn.

The celebrants "will continue to solemnize civil marriages of same-sex couples, with or without the threat of arrest," said a statement from the New York chapter of Marriage Equality, a group fighting for civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. Although an arrest in such cases is theoretically possible, the upstate ministers who were served with papers from the district attorney were not arrested. In Manhattan the office of District Attorney Robert Morgenthau has legal jurisdiction. Morgenthau spokeswoman Barbara Thompson declined to comment on Thursday's ceremonies.

The Unitarian ministers charged in New Paltz, N.Y., Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey, are to be arraigned March 22 on misdemeanor charges of solemnizing civil marriages without licenses. The state attorney general's office has declared that current law prohibits licenses from being issued to gay couples. Last month, New Paltz mayor Jason West brought the debate to his small college community, located 75 miles north of New York City, by performing 25 same-sex weddings in front of village hall. West faces misdemeanor counts for performing marriages without a license.

In the case of the New Paltz ministers, Ulster County district attorney Donald Williams said he pressed charges because the marriages were "drastically different" from religious same-sex unions that have been celebrated for decades. The two ministers openly said they believed they were performing civil ceremonies. The language of the New York State statutes formulated in 1907 is frequently gender-neutral, referring only to "person" or "parties" to describe who may obtain a marriage license. "The marriage may well still be valid, even though the minister solemnizing the union committed a technical violation because the parties do not have a marriage license," said Manhattan attorney Lawrence Moss, an expert on state laws related to same-sex marriage. The clergy and couples, said Moss, "want to test how far they can go."

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