A judge dismissed criminal charges Thursday against New Paltz, N.Y., mayor Jason West for marrying gay and lesbian couples, saying the state had failed to show it has a legitimate interest in banning same-sex weddings. In a ruling hailed as a milestone by gay rights activists, New Paltz town court justice Jonathan Katz ruled that prosecutors failed to prove the constitutionality of the law West was charged with violating. "I think that Jason West is a hero of the gay rights movement even more than back in February [when he performed the weddings]," said James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "It was his case that first declared New York State marriage laws unconstitutional."
Barring a successful appeal, the ruling spares West the possibility of fines or jail time for marrying more than two dozen same-sex couples on February 27. The serial weddings before a cheering outdoor crowd drew the small Hudson Valley village of New Paltz into the growing national debate over same-sex unions. Despite the court victory, West remains permanently barred from marrying same-sex couples under an order issued earlier this week by a separate judge hearing a civil case against the 27-year-old mayor. West faced 19 misdemeanor counts of solemnizing marriages for couples without a license. If convicted, he could have faced up to a year in jail.
Katz granted West's motion to dismiss. While saying there were no definitive New York criminal court cases on denying gay couples the right to marry, the judge noted New York has a policy of outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation. Katz concluded his ruling with a quote from Justice Louis Brandeis: "We must ever be on guard lest we erect our prejudices into legal principles." Ulster County district attorney Donald Williams said the issue was whether West broke the law, not the constitutional rights of the gay couples. He promised an appeal. Williams said the ruling has no bearing on other cases, including his pending prosecution of two Unitarian Universalist ministers on identical charges before a different New Paltz judge.
But West and his lawyer characterized Katz's decision as a major victory for gay rights. Attorney E. Joshua Rosenkranz said it was the first time a court in New York has ruled that same-sex couples have the same rights as heterosexual couples. He believed other New York courts considering the constitutionality of gay marriage will look at Katz's decision. "If history is any guide, this is the beginning of an unstoppable trend in New York," Rosenkranz said. The reverends' lawyer, Robert Gottlieb, said he expected a similar dismissal in his case. West said Thursday he had no plans to marry more couples until the injunction is overturned. He noted that members of the clergy have regularly been marrying same-sex couples in New Paltz since he bowed out. "The important thing is not that I get to marry people, though it's nice," West said. "The important thing is that these couples are able to marry."