Criminal Charges Over Gay Weds

New York Paltz Village Mayor Jason West, Gay Marriage, Same Sex, Homosexual
A New York State mayor was due in court Wednesday to answer criminal charges for performing gay marriages.

Meanwhile, with a Senate hearing, Congress is taking its first steps toward what promises to be a divisive election-year battle over a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages.

Elsewhere, an Oregon county said it will begin marrying same-sex couples.

The issue of gay marriage has raced into the national spotlight in a matter of weeks. The Massachusetts high court permitted same-sex marriages, the city of San Francisco began conducting such marriages, other cities and counties followed suit, and President Bush called for a constitutional ban.

In New Paltz, N.Y., Mayor Jason West vowed to go ahead with up to two dozen same-sex weddings this weekend, despite being charged with 19 criminal counts and possibly facing jail time for marrying gay couples.

West was scheduled to be in town court Wednesday night to answer charges that he married 19 couples knowing they did not have marriage licenses, a violation of the state's domestic relations law.

West insisted Wednesday that it was New York's Health Department that was breaking the law by refusing to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples. "Our state constitution requires equal protection for all New Yorkers," he said on NBC.

West, 26, has called it his moral obligation to wed same-sex couples, joining San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in the vanguard of the growing gay marriage movement.

"I'm incredibly disappointed," said the Green Party mayor, who added that he will plead innocent at his court hearing. "Apparently, it's a crime to uphold the constitution of New York state."

West married 25 gay couples on Friday, making this small college village 75 miles north of New York City another flash point in the national debate over gay marriage.

More than 3,400 couples have been married in San Francisco; West now has about 1,000 couples on a waiting list.

Meanwhile, a crowd of gay couples was expected to go to the county administration building in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday after a county commissioner there said she would begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn directed the county, the state's most populous, to begin issuing such licenses after consulting with the county attorney, but without an official vote from the four other county commissioners.

A county judge said she was ready to conduct the weddings.

"Many of these couples have been waiting decades, and this is the first time they've been seen as equal under the law," said Roey Thorpe, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon.

Most Americans are opposed to gay marriage. A CBS News poll conducted immediately after Mr. Bush endorsed a constitutional ban on gay marriage, 59 percent of Americans said they would favor an amendment to the Constitution that would "allow marriage only between a man and a woman," up slightly from 55 percent last December.

Massachusetts is set to become the first state to allow same-sex marriages in May after a state Supreme Court ruled a ban unconstitutional.

Using that as an impetus, the Senate Judiciary Constitution subcommittee is focusing on whether judges are overstepping their bounds and eroding traditional marriage.

Gay rights supporters are fighting back, framing the issue as America's next civil rights battle.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he called Wednesday's hearing to examine the "judicial invalidation of traditional marriage laws." Cornyn supports a constitutional amendment protecting traditional marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

"Judicial activism has made the defense of marriage a national issue that can only be addressed at the national level," Cornyn said.

In testimony prepared for delivery Wednesday, Yale University Professor R. Lea Brilmayer said a constitutional amendment to determine what Massachusetts can do within its own borders would be wrong.

"It is for the people of Massachusetts to say what their constitution should say," she said. "This premise is the basic principle of federalism, upon which the American constitutional system as a whole depends."

But other legal experts disagree. Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who is also expected to testify, said the Massachusetts ruling could invalidate Nebraska's ban on same-sex marriages.

The federal Defense of Marriage Act signed into law in 1996 by President Clinton tried to leave the gay marriage issue up to the states. But Bruning said recent court decisions indicate that federal courts may eventually allow same-sex marriages.

The arguments for and against a constitutional amendment also fall along social and civil rights lines.

Pastor Daniel de Leon Sr. of Santa Ana, Calif., in testimony prepared for the hearing, said marriage is for the benefit of children, not adults. He said efforts to stop gay marriage are not comparable to past opposition to biracial unions.

"Laws forbidding interracial marriage are about racism," he said. "Laws protecting traditional marriage are about children."

In Georgia, according to The New York Times, several black legislators have blocked efforts to amend the state constitution with a gay marriage ban. They feel the push to ban same-sex weddings unfairly targets a minority.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who effectively wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday, says he is against gay marriage but would oppose amending the Constitution to bar it.

The charge facing Mayor West is a misdemeanor and the punishment could run from a $25 to $500 fine or jail time. Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams said a jail term wasn't being contemplated at this point.

The district attorney, who does not have the legal authority to issue an injunction preventing the ceremonies, held out the possibility that state officials or the town judge could intervene to stop West from carrying out any more weddings.

The state Health Department last week said New York's domestic relations law bars the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and that New York courts have recognized only marriages between men and women. Critics say that is unconstitutional.