Judge dismisses charges against ministers who married gay couples

BY admin

July 13 2004 11:00 PM ET

In a strong rebuke of New York State's rationale for banning same-sex marriages, a judge on Tuesday dismissed criminal charges against two Unitarian Universalist ministers who married same-sex couples.
Throwing out the charges against the Reverends Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey, New Paltz, N.Y., town justice Judith Reichler said the state has displayed an antigay bias, and she sharply questioned the constitutionality of the state's same-sex-marriage ban. The women were charged in March with solemnizing marriages without a license for 13 same-sex couples in the Hudson Valley village of New Paltz. "Mixed-sex couples who do not love each other can marry. Couples who do not even like each other can marry," Reichler said. "Regardless of the relationship a married couple has, legal privileges are granted to improve their economic, emotional, and physical health--simply because of their marital status. There can be no constitutional rationale for denying same-sex couples the right to receive the benefits that are so lavishly bestowed on mixed-sex couples."

Sangrey said the ruling affirms the basic constitutional principles of equal protection and due process for all while the federal government acts to outlaw same-sex marriage. "I'm deeply concerned about the federal marriage act and the Senate's vote introducing discrimination into the Constitution of the United States," she said. "It's shameful and alarming." "Every rationale the government has put forward, she has shot down," said the women's attorney, Robert Gottlieb. "It's a wonderful, well-reasoned, unbelievable opinion."

Ulster County assistant district attorney John Rusk had argued that the case is not about the constitutional rights of the gay couples but simply about whether the ministers violated state law by marrying couples who did not have marriage licenses. But Reichler said the two issues are "inextricably intertwined" and ruled the charges against Sangrey and Greenleaf were invalid. In her opinion, Reichler rejected the state's reasoning that tradition and procreation justified its restriction of marriage to opposite-sex couples. "Tradition does not justify unconstitutional treatment. Slavery was also a traditional institution," Reichler wrote. "The fact alone that discrimination has been sanctioned by the state for many years does not justify it." And since the elderly and sterile are allowed to marry, Reichler ruled that procreation cannot be used as grounds to stop same-sex unions: "Citing 'procreation' as a broad justification for denying marriage to same-sex couples displays an antigay bias, rather than a real desire to provide a favorable environment for procreation and child-rearing."

Advocates said Sangrey and Greenleaf, who is lesbian, were the first clergy members in the nation to be prosecuted for marrying gay couples. Ulster County chief assistant district attorney John Prizzia said his office was reviewing the decision and hadn't yet determined whether it would appeal. In June another judge dismissed the same criminal charges against New Paltz mayor Jason West, saying the state failed to show it has a legitimate interest in banning same-sex weddings. New Paltz town court justice Jonathan Katz also ruled that prosecutors failed to prove the law that West was charged with violating was constitutional. The district attorney's office is appealing that decision. West drew the village into the growing national debate over same-sex unions in February when he performed about two dozen rapid-fire gay marriages. State officials, including Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer and Gov. George Pataki, have said same-sex ceremonies violate state law. "Once the courts start looking at how New York prevents same-sex marriage, they will see there is no legitimate reason for it," said Susan Sommer, an attorney for Lambda Legal, a gay rights group.

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