Same-sex marriage (SSM) in New York
Early attempts to marry same-sex couples
2004-FEB: Same-sex marriages solemnized but not registered:
During early 2004, many thousands of same-sex couples were married in at
least three locations: San Francisco, CA; Sandoval County, NM; and New Paltz,
NY. None of the couples were actually able to have their marriages registered by
their state government.
||Jason West, mayor of New Paltz, NY: The town is located about 75 miles north of New
York City. West, 26, a Green Party member, started
solemnizing same-sex marriages on 2004-FEB-27, without benefit of licenses.
He performed 25 SSM weddings that day. As of MAR-3, he had about 1,000
couples on a waiting list. His action triggered considerable friction at the
state level. Governor George Pataki (R) said that his counsel is advised
him that same-sex marriages are not allowed under New York state law.
Pataki said: "It's clear to me he's breaking the law."
On MAR-3, he said that: "Marriage under New York State law is and has
been for over 200 years between a man and a woman. And we have to uphold
that law." But
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (D), who was considering running
for governor at the time, refused the governor's request to issue an injunction
that would prohibit SSM. Spitzer later successfully ran for governor of New
On 2004-MAR-2, four days after having performed the weddings, West was
charged with 19 counts of breaking the state's domestic relations law by
solemnizing the marriages. He probably would have been charged with 25
counts -- one for each marriage -- except that witnesses could only be
found for 19. The charge is a misdemeanor which carries a maximum
sentence of $500.00 and/or up to a year in jail. New Paltz Police Chief
Raymond Zappone allegedly said that he and Ulster County District
Attorney Donald Williams (R) concluded that "we have significant,
sufficient evidence to take the charge forward." Zappone went to the
mayor's office and hand-delivered the summons. West said that he was "incredibly
disappointed...Apparently, it's a crime to uphold the constitution of New York state."
[The constitution forbids government discrimination on the basis of gender.] He said that he planed to plead not guilty when he
appeared in court on MAR-3. He also planned to marry additional same-sex
couples on MAR-6. His lawyer, E. Joshua Rosenkranz of New York City,
said that his client did not break any laws: "Jason West does not
belong in a criminal prosecution any more than Rosa Parks." District
said that he does not know whether West decided to perform the marriage
on his own accord, or after getting legal advice. He said: "If he's
doing it sincerely out of a moral conviction and out of some naive
misunderstanding of the law, then that would enter in the equation." 1,2,3
On 2004-JUN-10, New Paltz Town Justice Jonathan Katz dismissed
the criminal charges Jason West. Justice Katz ruled that the state
failed to show it has a legitimate interest in banning same-sex
weddings, and failed to prove that the law under which West was charged
was constitutional. 4,5
||Rev Greenleaf and Rev. Sangrey:
Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey are ministers of churches affiliated with the
Unitarian Universalist Association. They were charged for marrying thirteen same-sex
couples on 2004-MAR-6. Many Unitarian Universalist clergy have been
conducting union commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples for years.
However, these cases appear to be different. They were more than simple
religious rituals. Greenleaf and Sangrey publicly said that they knew
that the spouses did not have a license, but still considered the
marriages to be valid. The Associated Press believes this to be
the first instance of ministers being charged with solemnizing a
marriage without a valid marriage license. If found guilty, the clergy
can be fined up to $500 and/or sentenced to one year in jail.
Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church
and State said: "It appears they are deliberately attempting to
suppress a religious ritual which is permitted by an American church."
Donald Williams, Ulster County District Attorney, said that the
state marriage laws criminalizing behavior does not differentiate
between public officials and members of the clergy who marry couples. He
"It is not our intention to interfere with anyone's
right to express their religious beliefs, including the right of members
of the clergy to perform ceremonies where couples are united solely in
the eyes of the church or any other faith."
Mark Shields, a
spokesman for the gay-positive Human Rights Campaign,
and mayor of Nyack, NY
"As far as I know that's unprecedented. It's ridiculous
that prosecutors would spend their time charging anyone with a crime who
is simply trying to unite two people with basic rights and protections."
On MAR-13, Rev. Marian Visel joined Greenleaf
and Sangrey, and married 25 additional couples. The ministers planned to
plead not guilty at their arraignment on MAR-22, and were prepared to go
to trial. 6 They are believed to be the first clergy
prosecuted in the U.S. for marrying gay couples.
On 2004-JUL-13, New Paltz Town Justice Judith Reichler
dismissed the charges against Greenleaf and Sangrey. She declared that
the state had displayed an anti-gay bias. She wrote in her decision: "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." She called the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban same-sex marriage
"shameful and alarming." (The FMA was defeated in the
Senate on 2004-JUL-14).
The state based its case for restricting marriage to
opposite-sex couples on tradition and procreation. The Town Justice demolished the former by ruling that: "Tradition does not justify
unconstitutional treatment. Slavery was also a traditional institution."
She also noted that since infertile and elderly couples are allowed to
marry, that procreation is an invalid ground to stop same-sex marriages.
||John Shields, mayor of Nyack, NY: On 2004-MAR-3, Shields announced
that he expected to start marrying same-sex couples. He also planned to seek a
license so that he and his partner could marry.
"What do you do when you're faced
with injustice? What did the women do in the suffrage movement?
They marched. They were arrested. They did what they had to do to get
He led a group of same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses. They
were refused. 7
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"N.Y. village mayor charged for marrying gays. Vows he's innocent,
plans weddings this week. 'Clear to me he's breaking the law:' Governor,"
Associated Press, The Toronto Star, 2004-MAR-3, Page A12.
Sumathi Reddy & Andrew Metz, "Mayor faces charges for marrying gays,"
Newsday.com, 2004-MAR-2, at:
Rukmini Callimachi, "Gay Couples start tying knot in Oregon,"
Associated Press, 2004-MAR-3, at:
"Charges Tossed Vs. Gay-Marriage Ministers," Associated Press,
"Wedstock," Heart of the City, at:
"Clergy Charged For Marrying Gays," CBS News, 2004-MAR-15, at:
"Same-sex marriage," Center for Media & Democracy, at:
Copyright © 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2007-APR-30
Latest update: 2007-APR-30
Author: B.A. Robinson