Gay Marriage Debate Continues as the NY Attorney General Defends State Law

( [email protected] ) Mar 04, 2004 05:45 AM EST

NEW PALTZ, N.Y. -- Wednesday in New Paltz, Mayor Jason West became a hero to thousands of gay couples. West was charged with 19 misdemeanor counts but in New Paltz Town Court Wednesday night he was pleaded not guilty to the charges.

A large crowd of people gathered in front of the court chanting ¡°Jason for president!¡± in support of West. Many college students supported West with signs such as "Prosecution is Persecution - Go West," likening West to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, as a leader of Civil Rights movement of this era.

West repeated his vow to wed 10 to 20 gay couples on Saturday and insisted the constitution provides equal status for same-sex couples.

"The issue before us today is one of civil rights," he said, "It's one of human rights. It's one of basic human decency."

Nyack Mayor John Shields said that night he would grant marriage licenses to a group of gay couples Thursday in Orangetown. He said the couples would file a class-action lawsuit if it's denied.

"If we are denied, we will file a class-action suit against the government for denying us our rights," he said.

Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson will also be involved in this matter, forwarding the applications of at least five gay couples to the New York State Department of Health.

State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said local clerks should not issue marriage licenses to gay couples and officials like West "should not solemnize same-sex wedding ceremonies."

"I personally would like to see the law changed, but must respect the law as it now stands," he said.

Spitzer said New York's law contains references to "bride and groom" and "husband and wife." He cited case law that found "marriage is and always has been a contract between a man and a woman."

On the other hand, local law enforcement and one village trustee are taking action to stop West from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams said his office is considering ways to stop Saturday's marriages, as well as avenues to remove West from office if he is convicted.

Robert Hebel of New Paltz Villiage Trustee will file the restraining order today in Ulster County Supreme Court on behalf of the conservative Florida-based Liberty Counsel. If granted, the order would bar Mayor Jason West from marrying gay couples.

"He took an oath to uphold the law," Hebel said.

As President Bush has called for a constitutional amendment that would ban gan marriage, the gaay marriage issue is rising as one of the top national concenrs. The issue is expected to have great impact on the election as well. Already in San Francisco, a New Mexico county, and a Oregon county, marriage license has been issued to gay couples.