NYC Denies Gay License Seekers

People supporting gay marriage line up outside the Municipal Building in New York, Thursday, March 4, 2004. Dozens of same-sex couples lined up outside the city clerk's office to obtain marriage licenses Thursday morning but were turned away with a letter explaining that gay marriages are illegal in the state.
CBS/AP
Dozens of same-sex couples lined up for marriage licenses in the nation's largest city but were turned away Thursday morning, even as officials in other liberal pockets vowed to continue defying long-accepted laws against the permits.

Couples who came to the New York City clerk's office were handed thick letters explaining that local law prohibits gay marriages, based on a ruling a day earlier from the city's top lawyer.

"We're disappointed, but we think it's important for people to come here," said Mara Gottlieb, 33, who was first in line with partner Camille Gonzalez, 38. "We want the politicians to know that this isn't going away."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has vowed to enforce the law, and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer also said Wednesday that gay weddings are illegal, though one small-town mayor has conducted gay marriages and another plans to try to obtain licenses.

Mayors and county officials in California, New Mexico and Oregon have also allowed gay marriages since the wedding march began Feb. 12 in San Francisco.

In Portland, Ore., county officials issued 422 licenses to gay couples Wednesday and prepared for more Thursday.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and others have questioned the legality of the licenses, saying the state's 1863 marriage statute suggested marriage is a union between one man and one woman. But their words did little to deter the long line of gay couples waiting to pick up marriage licenses Wednesday.

"This means we finally get to enjoy what every other married couple takes for granted — it means we finally get to enter that world also," said Mary Li, a county employee who was first to get a license.

A group of pastors and conservative lawmakers, dubbed the Defense of Marriage Coalition, announced they would challenge the county's decision in court or a future ballot initiative.

In New York, the attorney general said current state law prohibits same-sex weddings, but that he would leave it to the courts to decide if the law is constitutional.

"I personally would like to see the law changed but must respect the law as it now stands," Spitzer said in a statement obtained by The Associated Press.

Both sides of the polarizing issue had been waiting on Spitzer's opinion since last Friday, when the mayor of New Paltz, a college town 75 miles north of Manhattan, married 25 same-sex couples. Village Mayor Jason West now faces 19 criminal counts and could face jail time.

West appeared in town court Wednesday and pleaded not guilty. Outside the courthouse about 200 supporters gave him a hero's welcome, cheering and singing as a jazz trio played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

"I think that he is a patriot and I think he's a civil rights leader," said Mike Katz, a student at the State University at New Paltz. "We're making history here."

West said he will conduct another 10 to 20 marriages this weekend, but Village Trustee Robert Hebel said he intends to seek a temporary restraining order Thursday to stop West from marrying same-sex couples.

Edward Farrell, the director of the New York Conference of Mayors, said mayors who told him they would have considered performing ceremonies between same-sex couples have changed their mind since Spitzer issued his opinion.

"Part of a mayor's oath of office is to uphold the laws of the state of New York and the attorney general made it clear that same-sex marriages are not authorized under the law," Farrell said.

New York and Oregon are among 12 states without laws explicitly defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Determined to stop gay marriages, Republican senators in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday they will move later this month to consider several versions of a constitutional amendment to block the same-sex unions.

The legal action against the New Paltz mayor prompted the head of a conservative group to demand that California Attorney General Bill Lockyer file criminal charges against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

"He's setting an example of anarchy for the entire nation," said Scott Lively, head of the Pro-Family Law Center. "He does indeed deserve to be arrested for these crimes."

But West and Newsom may also have inspired John Shields, the mayor of Nyack, N.Y., who said he would lead a group of same-sex couples Thursday morning to the clerk's office to apply for marriage licenses.

"If we are denied, we will file a class-action suit against the government for denying us our rights," he said. Town Supervisor Thom Kleiner had said that licenses would not be granted.

In New Mexico, the Sandoval County clerk's office granted licenses to 26 same-sex couples last month before the state attorney general issued an opinion saying the licenses were invalid under state law.

The national debate began heating up last November, when Massachusetts' highest court ruled that gay couples are entitled to all the rights of marriage. State-sanctioned gay marriages were expected to start there in May.