Gay Marriage Debate Sweeps Nation

The contentious debate over gay marriage (search) intensified from coast to coast as officials in liberal pockets of the nation vowed to issue licenses for same-sex couples in defiance of critics and long-accepted laws.

As scores of gay couples tied the knot in Portland (search), Oregon's governor joined others to question the legality of similar efforts sweeping the nation from San Francisco (search) to New Mexico, Massachusetts and upstate New York.

New York's attorney general said gay weddings in that state are illegal, though his opinion didn't deter a second mayor in the state from announcing that he would soon conduct gay marriages.

Critics of gay marriage watched the growing list of counties and municipalities planning to authorize licenses for same-sex couples or solemnizing gay marriages with growing alarm.

"It's anarchy," said Rick Forcier of the Washington state chapter of the Christian Coalition. "We seem to have lost the rule of law. It's very frightening when every community decides what laws they will obey."

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski questioned the legality of Multnomah County issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, saying the state's 1863 marriage statute suggested marriage is a union between one man and one woman.

But the governor's words did little to deter the long line of gay couples snaking their way around a Multnomah County building, ducking under rainbow-colored umbrellas as they waited to pick up marriage licenses Wednesday.

"This means we finally get to enjoy what every other married couple takes for granted — it means we finally get to enter that world also," said Mary Li, a county employee who was the first to legalize her commitment to her longtime partner.

County officials estimate that over 400 marriage licenses were issued Wednesday to same-sex couples — four times as many as were granted last month on the first day San Francisco recognized gay unions. The licenses were to again be handed out Thursday.

Mayors and county officials in four states have allowed gay marriages, including San Francisco, which started the wedding march Feb. 12. New York and Oregon are among 12 states without laws explicitly defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Determined to stop gay marriages, Republican senators in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday they will move later this month to consider several versions of a constitutional amendment to block the same-sex unions.

In New York, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer issued an opinion saying state law bars such unions. But he added that it is the courts' job to determine whether the law is constitutional.

"I personally would like to see the law changed, but must respect the law as it now stands," Spitzer said in a statement. He said New York's law contains references to "bride and groom" and "husband and wife" and does not authorize same-sex marriage.

Both sides of the issue have been waiting for Spitzer's opinion since Friday, when the mayor of New Paltz, a college town 75 miles north of Manhattan, married 25 gay couples without licenses.

The Ulster County district attorney has charged Village Mayor Jason West with 19 criminal counts for some of the marriages he already has conducted, but the prosecutor lacks the authority to stop West from performing more weddings.

West appeared in town court Wednesday and pleaded not guilty. Outside the courthouse about 200 supporters gave him a hero's welcome, cheering and singing as a jazz trio played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

"I think that he is a patriot and I think he's a civil rights leader," said Mike Katz, a student at the State University at New Paltz. "We're making history here."

West said he will conduct another 10 to 20 marriages this weekend, but Village Trustee Robert Hebel said he intends to seek a temporary restraining order Thursday to stop West from marrying same-sex couples.

The legal action against West prompted the head of a conservative group to demand that California Attorney General Bill Lockyer file criminal charges against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who many criticize for starting the latest crisis.

"He's setting an example of anarchy for the entire nation," said Scott Lively, head of the Pro-Family Law Center. "He does indeed deserve to be arrested for these crimes."

But West and Newsom may also have inspired John Shields, the mayor of Nyack, N.Y., who said he would start marrying same-sex couples and planned to seek a license himself to marry his boyfriend.

"What do you do when you're faced with injustice?" Shields asked. "What did the women do in the suffrage movement? They marched. They were arrested. They did what they had to do to get their rights."

In New Mexico, the Sandoval County clerk's office granted licenses to 26 same-sex couples last month before the state attorney general issued an opinion saying the licenses were invalid under state law.

The national debate began heating up last November, when Massachusetts' highest court ruled that gay couples are entitled to all the rights of marriage. State-sanctioned gay marriages were expected to start there in May.