NEW PALTZ, N.Y. – The village's mayor was charged Tuesday with 19 criminal counts for performing weddings for gay couples, an act of defiance that thrust the small community into the national debate over same-sex marriage.
In Oregon (search), meanwhile, Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn (search) directed the county to begin issuing such licenses, after consulting with the county attorney, but without an official vote from the four other county commissioners.
New Paltz (search) Mayor Jason West (search) was charged with solemnizing marriages for couples who had no licenses, a misdemeanor under the domestic relations law, according to Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams.
Although West could face a maximum penalty of a year in jail, the prosecutor said a jail term wasn't being contemplated at this point.
The 26-year-old Green Party mayor said he will plead innocent at his court hearing Wednesday and that he would still go through with his plans to marry as many as two dozen gay couples Saturday.
"I'm incredibly disappointed," West said. "Apparently, it's a crime to uphold the constitution of New York state."
West performed wedding ceremonies for 25 gay couples Friday, making him the second mayor in the country to perform same-sex marriages. It also made this small college village 75 miles north of New York City another flash point in the national debate over gay marriage. More than 3,400 couples have been married in San Francisco and West has about 1,000 couples on a waiting list.
In Multnomah County, considered the most liberal municipality in Oregon, the head of a gay rights group said a crowd of gay couples would go to the county administration building in Portland on Wednesday for licenses. County Judge Linda Bergman said she was ready to conduct the weddings.
"Many of these couples have been waiting decades, and this is the first time they've been seen as equal under the law," said Roey Thorpe, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon.
In New Paltz, the mayor's punishment for the misdemeanor, absent jail, could run from a $25 to $500 fine. Williams said he did not know whether West performed the marriages of his own accord or after getting bad legal advice.
"If he's doing it sincerely out of a moral conviction and out of some naive misunderstanding of the law, then that would enter into the equation," the prosecutor said.
Williams said his charges do not hinge on whether gay marriage is legal in New York, only that the weddings were performed for couples who did not have marriage licenses.
State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has said he will decide this week whether New York law allows gay marriage. He declined comment Tuesday night on the criminal charges filed against West.
Gov. George Pataki said his counsel believes gay marriage is clearly not allowed under the law, but he will await Spitzer's opinion.
Williams said the misdemeanor complaint lists 19 charges -- instead of 25 for the number of weddings performed -- because police at the scene provided eyewitness accounts of only 19 ceremonies. He said more charges are possible.
With West vowing to go through with more gay weddings, opponents had hoped Williams would act to stop him. But he said he did not have the legal power to issue an injunction barring the ceremonies. He could file more criminal charges after this weekend's weddings.
West said the prospect of further punishment does not deter him, adding that the newlywed couples inspire him.
"Just the looks on their faces, just the absolute joy of finally being able to be equal," he said. "That is the highest moral calling I could possibly imagine."
Meanwhile, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger softened his stance on same-sex marriages during an appearance Monday on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
Schwarzenegger told Leno that such unions would be "fine with me" if the courts or the voters change state law and make them legal. California voters last year that proclaims marriage can only involve a man and a woman.
Previously, Schwarzenegger had sent mixed messages on same-sex marriages, ordering state Attorney General Bill Lockyer to "take immediate steps" to stop San Francisco from allowing them, but doing nothing to enforce that directive.
Last month on NBC's "Meet the Press," he warned of anarchy and deadly consequences if the San Francisco marriages were not stopped. "All of a sudden we see riots and we see protests and we see people clashing," Schwarzenegger said. "The next thing we know is there are injured or there are dead people, and we don't want to have that."