Same-Sex Ceremonies In NYC

gay marriage graphic
The numbers are in: a total of 4,037 same-sex couples obtained marriage licenses in San Francisco between Feb. 12 and last week, when the state Supreme Court clamped down on same-sex ceremonies.

More than 91 percent of the couples were from California, with the rest making the trip from 45 other states and eight foreign countries.

Couples from Washington and Oregon, which each sent 32 couples to San Francisco, were the next most-represented group behind California. Nevada, New York and Florida respectively had 24, 20 and 16.

As those West Coast numbers were released Wednesday, a minister and a rabbi on the East Coast announced plans to turn up the heat on the same-sex marriage debate in New York City.

They'll be holding three same-sex marriage ceremonies outside City Hall Thursday, with dozens of other members of the clergy expected to be on hand, in a show of solidarity for two Unitarian Universalist ministers facing criminal charges for performing same-sex ceremonies in New Paltz, N.Y.

"We're calling on clergy around the state performing these kinds of ceremonies to join us in public. We want the same thing as is accorded heterosexual couples - and I've married some of them, too," said the Rev. Pat Bumgardner, the lesbian pastor of Manhattan's Metropolitan Community Church, a worldwide Christian fellowship that welcomes gays and lesbians.

Bumgardner says she will marry two couples - one male and the other female - who have already pledged their commitment in religious ceremonies. The aim of this wedding is to bond the pair in a civil marriage - although its legality is being challenged.

The men, Bradley Curry and Mel Bryant, are in their late 30s; each runs a business managing stylists for photo shoots.

The female couple are Montel Cherry-Slack, a 30-year-old attorney, and Michelle Cherry-Slack, a 30-year-old administrative assistant at Bumgardner's church on West 36th Street who plans to enter Union Theological Seminary in the fall. They had their last names legally changed to be the same and were joined in what they call a "holy union."

"I feel on the one hand excited about the marriage in front of City Hall. At the same time, it saddens me that we have to do this to get equal treatment," said Michelle Cherry-Slack, who met her partner four years ago while both were in law school. "I'll marry Montel over and over again in order to gain legal recognition. I'll be with her forever. And she says to me, 'I'll marry you a million times if I have to."'

A third couple, two women, plan to be married Thursday by Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, founder and rabbi of the Kolot Chayeinu (Hebrew for "Voices of Our Lives") Congregation in Brooklyn.

The celebrants "will continue to solemnize civil marriages of same-sex couples, with or without the threat of arrest," said a statement from the New York chapter of Marriage Equality, a group fighting for same-sex civil marriage rights.

Although an arrest in such cases in theoretically possible, the upstate ministers were served with papers from the district attorney, not arrested.

In Manhattan, the office of District Attorney Robert Morgenthau has legal jurisdiction. Morgenthau spokeswoman Barbara Thompson declined comment on Thursday's ceremonies.

The Unitarian ministers charged in New Paltz, N.Y., Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey, are to be arraigned March 22 on misdemeanor charges of solemnizing civil marriages without a license. The state attorney general's office has declared that current law prohibits licenses from being issued to gay couples.

Last month, New Paltz Mayor Jason West brought the gay-marriage debate to his small college community 75 miles north of New York City by performing 25 same-sex weddings in front of village hall. West faces misdemeanor counts for performing marriages without a license.

In the case of the New Paltz ministers, Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams said he pressed charges because the marriages were "drastically different" from religious same-sex unions that have been celebrated for decades. The two ministers openly said they believed they were performing civil ceremonies.

The language of the New York state statutes - formulated in 1907 - is frequently gender-neutral, referring only to "person" or "parties" to describe who may obtain a marriage license.

"The marriage may well still be valid, even though the minister solemnizing the union committed a technical violation because the parties do not have a marriage license," said Manhattan attorney Lawrence Moss, an expert on state laws related to same-sex marriage.

The clergy and couples, said Moss, "want to test how far they can go. When does a marriage ceremony become illegal?"