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Religious Tolerance logo

Same-sex marriage (SSM) in New York

Early attempts to marry same-sex couples

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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.

bulletJason 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 York state.

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 Attorney Williams 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

bulletRev 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.

Rev. Barry 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 said:

"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 said:

"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. 4

bulletJohn 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. He said:

"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 their rights."

He led a group of same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses. They were refused. 7

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "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.
  2. Sumathi Reddy & Andrew Metz, "Mayor faces charges for marrying gays," Newsday.com, 2004-MAR-2, at: http://www.newsday.com/
  3. Rukmini Callimachi, "Gay Couples start tying knot in Oregon," Associated Press, 2004-MAR-3, at: http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/
  4. "Charges Tossed Vs. Gay-Marriage Ministers," Associated Press, 2004-JUL-13, at: http://news.yahoo.com/
  5. "Wedstock," Heart of the City, at: http://www.mistersf.com/
  6. "Clergy Charged For Marrying Gays," CBS News, 2004-MAR-15, at: http://www.cbsnews.com/
  7. "Same-sex marriage," Center for Media & Democracy, at: http://www.sourcewatch.org/

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Site navigation: Home > Homosexuality > Same-sex marriage > Menu > NY > here

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Copyright © 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-APR-30
Latest update: 2007-APR-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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