March 3, 2004
Police Charge New Paltz Mayor for Marrying Same-Sex Couples
By THOMAS J. LUECK
Four days after he thrust his Ulster County village into the national debate over same-sex marriage by conducting ceremonies for 25 gay couples, the mayor of New Paltz was charged yesterday with solemnizing a marriage without a license, a misdemeanor under state law.
The charges against the mayor, Jason West, brought by Ulster County District Attorney Donald A. Williams, came as questions over the legality of gay marriages resonated across the state.
In Albany, Gov. George E. Pataki said he was awaiting a legal opinion from Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, but reiterated a strong personal conviction against gay marriage.
And in Ithaca, where Mayor Carolyn K. Peterson laid out a municipal strategy on Monday to provoke a court ruling on whether state law allows gay marriage, the city clerk was preparing yesterday to forward the marriage license applications of five gay couples to the New York State Department of Health. Mayor Peterson, who supports the rights of gay people to marry, has said Ithaca will offer legal help to gay couples who go to court if their marriage license applications are denied.
In New Paltz, Mayor West was issued a summons at the village hall by the New Paltz town police chief, Raymond K. Zappone. The mayor was charged with 19 criminal counts, fewer than the number of ceremonies he performed on Friday, because the police on the scene provided eyewitness accounts of only 19 ceremonies.
"This is the same as any criminal case, except a person in public office has taken a solemn oath to obey the law," Mr. Williams said. A jail term is not being contemplated, he said.
Mayor West could be fined up to $500 and sentenced to up to a year in jail for each count. He said last night that he intended to plead not guilty. "I have broken no laws, and I intend to proceed with ceremonies on Saturday unless I am advised otherwise by my attorneys," he said.
In an interview, Mayor West said he had hoped Mr. Williams would "stand with me in favor of civil rights and our state constitution."
Governor Pataki, who emerged with Joseph L. Bruno, the Republican majority leader of the State Senate, and Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the State Assembly, from a meeting called to discussed such issues as tax collections and education financing, faced reporters in a State Capitol hallway who were determined to ask about same-sex marriage.
Mr. Pataki said he would wait for an opinion from Mr. Spitzer before taking any legal action. But he said he believed state law now defines marriage as a union of husband and wife.
"My personal view, just stepping back from a detailed legal analysis, is that the law is clear, the law is being broken, and that it is appropriate to seek an injunction" against more same-sex marriages in the state, Mr. Pataki said. "The attorney general has indicated he does not agree with that," he said. "We are waiting for his analysis."
Mr. Bruno opposes same-sex marriage, and Mr. Silver says it is an issue that must be resolved in court.
Al Baker, in Albany, and Thomas Crampton, in New Paltz, contributed reporting for this article.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company