NEW PALTZ, N.Y. – Twenty-one gay couples exchanged wedding vows on the steps of village hall Friday in a spirited ceremony that opened another front on the growing national debate over gay marriage.
As the ceremonies by 26-year-old Mayor Jason West were ending, the state Health Department asked the attorney general to seek an injunction "to prevent further illegal conduct by the mayor," a department spokesman said.
A call to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's (search) office was not immediately returned.
West, elected on the Green Party (search) ticket last year in this village 75 miles north of New York City, joined Gavin Newsom (search) of San Francisco as the country's only mayors to marry same-sex couples.
"What we're witnessing in America today is the flowering of the largest civil rights movement the country's had in a generation," West said.
Billiam van Roestenberg, 38, and Jeffrey McGowan, 39, of nearby Plattekill, were the first to wed. Wearing suits, they held hands and carried flowers as the crowd cheered.
"I feel happy and joyful and peaceful," van Roestenberg said. "A little bit of peace has finally come in. I feel proud to be an American."
"Now I'm normal and equal like every one else," he said.
The midday ceremonies ended a little more than an hour after they started.
More than 100 people, mostly supporters of gay marriage, turned out on the green across from village hall, outnumbering family and friends of the couples there to marry. A few scattered protesters carried signs opposing gay marriage.
Jay Blotcher of High Falls, N.Y., said that while West could only give him a certificate and not a marriage license, it was still important to go through the ceremony.
"We have to show people who we are," he said. "We've been badmouthed by religious zealots. We've been deprived by President Bush, and we have to show people that we're your friends, neighbors and family."
Blotcher, who with his partner has already gotten a civil union in Vermont and a domestic partnership in New York City, said Friday marked another important step.
"This country was founded on a revolution," he said. "And this is a revolution, but it's a revolution of love."
One protester stood outside the hall with a sign that read, in part, "It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."
"It's against nature," Angelo Da'Quaro said. "It's against religion, it's against all of that."
The ceremonies came a day after the state Health Department said New York's domestic relations law does not allow marriage licenses for same-sex couples. It said a clerk issuing such a license or anyone solemnizing such a marriage would be violating state law.
Department spokesman William Van Slyke said the department was requesting the injunction and also wants the attorney general's office to find the same-sex marriages in New Paltz "null and void."
West and some legal experts said they read the law differently.
"For a marriage to be legal in this state all that's required is for it to be properly solemnized by someone with authority to do so," West told one media outlet early Friday. "I'm fully able to do that."
Vincent Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School (search), said nothing in New York law explicitly prohibits same-sex weddings, but that the framers "clearly were contemplating opposite-sex marriages."
Discussion of gay marriage heated up this month after the top Massachusetts court ruled that anything less than full-fledged marriage for gays there would be unconstitutional. Since then, San Francisco officials have performed more than 3,400 same-sex marriages and have challenged their state law barring such unions. Earlier this week, President Bush endorsed a movement to amend the Constitution to ban the practice.
A bill in the New York Legislature (search) would ban same-sex marriages. Similar bills have died without action in the past. At least 34 states have enacted so-called defense of marriage laws.
As word of the New Paltz ceremonies spread Thursday, the number of couples seeking to marry quickly tripled to 12, and the mayor set up a waiting list on the village's web site. By noon Friday, West said more than 100 people had signed up on the Web site, and he had received "innumerable" phone calls and e-mails from others who want to marry.
Plattsburgh Mayor Daniel Stewart — New York state's first and only openly gay mayor — said he will not perform same-sex marriages.
"I believe in changing the law, but I don't believe in breaking the law in order to change it," said Stewart, a Republican.