ALBANY, N.Y. – New York's attorney general joined the rapidly spreading national debate over gay marriage Wednesday, saying current law prohibits same-sex weddings in New York but leaving 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," Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (search) said.
Both sides of the polarizing issue have been waiting on Spitzer's opinion since last Friday when the mayor of New Paltz, a small college town 75 miles north of Manhattan, married 25 same-sex couples. Village Mayor Jason West (search) now faces 19 criminal counts and could face jail time.
In New Paltz (search) Town Court Wednesday night, West pleaded not guilty to the charges and Justice Jonathan Katz instructed West's lawyer to submit motions by March 24.
Outside was a reprise of the hoopla that surrounded last week's wedding marathon. West was given a hero's welcome, walking into court as 200 supporters chanted, cheered and sang along to a jazz trio playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The crowd held signs like, "Prosecution is Persecution - Go West."
State University at New Paltz student Mike Katz, no relation to the judge, held a sign likening West to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.
"I think that he is a patriot and I think he's a civil rights leader," Katz said. "...We're making history here."
Village Trustee Robert Hebel said he will submit an application Thursday for a temporary restraining order to stop West from marrying same-sex couples. Hebel is the local sponsor of the application, being filed on behalf of the conservative Florida-based Liberty Counsel, which has been active in protesting gay marriages in San Francisco.
On Wednesday, Nyack Mayor John Shields (search) said he would also start marrying gay couples and planned to seek a license himself to marry his same-sex partner.
Shields told The Associated Press he will start officiating at weddings of same-sex couples as early as this week and planned to join other gay New Yorkers in visiting municipal clerks' offices Friday seeking marriage licenses.
Spitzer said local clerks should not issue marriage licenses to gay couples and officials like West "should not solemnize same-sex wedding ceremonies."
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."
He also said the state's domestic relations law "raises important constitutional questions involving the equal protection of the laws" that must be decided by the courts.
However, Spitzer also said court precedent recognizes gay marriages and civil unions performed outside New York and in compliance with laws in that state or country.
Shields said he was not dissuaded by Spitzer's opinion and said the only thing that will stop him from marrying gay couples is if couples say they do not want that kind of publicity.
New York is among a dozen states without laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The state Health Department last week said New York's domestic relations law bars the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and that New York courts have recognized only marriages between men and women.
Meanwhile, county officials began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Portland Wednesday. About 50 people lined up for a sudden chance to wed after a Multnomah County commissioner said she would begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In Washington, D.C., lawmakers debated same-sex marriages.
More than 3,400 couples already have wed in San Francisco.
West, the 26-year-old Green Party mayor, was charged with marrying 19 couples knowing they did not have marriage licenses, a violation of the state's domestic relations law.
After his court appearance, hundreds of supporters swarmed around the mayor like a rock star, some shouting "Jason for president!" Surrounded by a phalanx of police officers, West repeated his vow to wed 10 to 20 gay couples on Saturday and insisted the constitution provides equal status for same-sex couples.
"For those like the governor and the district attorney who disagree with me, I urge them to read our constitution for themselves," West said. A hoarse West had to shout above the din of the adulatory crowd.
"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."
West was charged with a misdemeanor and the punishment could run from a $25 to $500 fine or jail time. Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams said a jail term wasn't being contemplated at this point.
Williams said the misdemeanor complaint lists 19 charges — instead of 25 for the number of weddings performed last Friday— because police at the scene provided eyewitness accounts of only 19 ceremonies. He said he could add counts if West marries more couples.
Republican Gov. George Pataki repeated his assertion Wednesday that gay marriage is illegal.
Marriage under New York State law is and has been for over 200 years between a man and a woman," Pataki said. "And we have to uphold that law. If people seek to change that law, they should do it through the legislative process and not just by breaking it."
Pataki said it was premature to discuss amending New York's constitution.
Spitzer, a Democrat, has earned a national reputation as an aggressive prosecutor with his high profile probes into abuses on Wall Street and in mutual fund companies. He is also widely believed to be angling to run for governor in 2006 in a state divided into a mostly conservative upstate and a more liberal New York City.
"I personally believe that we are at a point now where society is ready to recognize the rights and equality of the gay community," Spitzer said. "But the process of recognition must proceed lawfully."