Bowing to pressure from the state attorney general, the city on Wednesday stopped accepting marriage license applications from gay couples but decided to seek a court ruling in support of same-sex vows.
The City Council acted after Attorney General Peter C. Harvey (search) threatened criminal prosecution if city officials did not stop granting the licenses.
"This is a civil rights issue," Councilwoman Kate Mellina said, noting that the community has a large gay population. "They deserve the same rights that anyone standing in this room deserves."
Council members said they would seek a court judgment affirming that a gay marriage performed Monday by the deputy mayor was legal and that the city could continue issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Harvey said state law, affirmed by court rulings, does not permit such marriages. "Of course, the Legislature can change the law if it chooses to do so," he said.
Gov. James E. McGreevey (search) urged gay couples to take advantage of the state's recently passed domestic partnership measure that offers access to medical benefits, insurance and other legal rights. "The state is bound by the court, and the court has held that it is not legal," he said.
The City Council's actions left Gary Nehls and Paul Breakiron empty-handed. They had driven nearly 400 miles through the night from their home in Uniontown, Pa., near Pittsburgh, to file a license application.
"Why shouldn't we have the same rights as everyone else?" Nehls said. He and Breakiron said they have been together seven years and were wed in a religious ceremony in 2002.
In New York, Mayor Jason West (search) of New Paltz faces possible jail time for officiating at same-sex weddings for couples who lacked a license. Meanwhile, hundreds of gay couples were granted wedding licenses last week in Portland, Ore.