Two ministers were charged with criminal offenses Monday for marrying 13 gay couples -- apparently the first time in U.S. history that clergy members have been prosecuted for performing same-sex ceremonies.
District Attorney Donald Williams said gay marriage (search) laws make no distinction between public officials and members of the clergy who preside over wedding ceremonies.
Unitarian Universalist (search) ministers Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey were charged with solemnizing a marriage without a license, the same charges leveled against New Paltz Mayor Jason West (search), who last month drew the state into the widening national debate over same-sex unions.
Each charge carries a fine of $25 to $500 or up to a year in jail.
"As far as I know that's unprecedented," said Mark Shields, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay rights group. "It's ridiculous that prosecutors would spend their time charging anyone with a crime who is simply trying to unite two people with basic rights and protections."
The ministers will plead not guilty at their arraignment March 22 and are prepared to go to trial, said their lawyer, Robert Gottlieb.
"There have been clergy throughout the country for years and years who have solemnized marriages between same-sex couples, and only the Ulster County D.A. feels compelled to haul them into a court and brand them a criminal defendant," Gottlieb said.
Since West joined San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (search) as the only elected officials to marry gay couples, the issue has spread rapidly across the country. Courts, legislatures and elected officials are wrestling with what supporters say is a matter of civil rights and opponents call an attack on the time-honored institution of marriage.
Greenleaf, who acknowledged performing the ceremonies in New Paltz knowing the couples did not have licenses, said she signed an affidavit for the couples and considers the ceremonies civil.
Greenleaf and her partner Pat Sullivan were among the couples married by Sangrey.
Williams said he decided to press charges because the marriages were "drastically different" from religious ceremonies because Greenleaf and Sangrey publicly said they considered them civil. Some Unitarian ministers, Greenleaf included, have been performing ceremonies for gay couples since before the issue entered the national debate.
"It is not our intention to interfere with anyone's right to express their religious beliefs, including the right of members of the clergy to perform ceremonies where couples are united solely in the eyes of the church or any other faith," Williams said.
Williams said his decision to bring charges was influenced by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's opinion that gay marriage is illegal in New York and by the injunction issued by a state supreme court justice against West.
Barbara Cox, a law professor and gay marriage expert at the California Western School of Law, said the case might be difficult to prosecute because clergy had not sworn to uphold the law.
"A minister who has no authority to make a marriage legally valid, how can you say they've broken the law?" Cox said.
The ministers performed the weddings March 6.
On Saturday, Greenleaf and Sangrey were joined by a third minister, the Rev. Marion Visel, in performing 25 more ceremonies, which went off without protests or arrests. It could not immediately be learned if more charges would be brought.
Unitarian Universalists have roots in a movement that rejected Puritan orthodoxy in New England, and they support a free search for spiritual truth. Atheists and pagans are a significant part of their membership.
Unitarians have backed gay rights since 1970, and not only endorse same-sex unions, but some churches also offer the couples premarital counseling. The denomination counts nearly 215,000 people as members nationwide, according to the 2004 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.
West married 25 gay and lesbian couples Feb. 27 in a highly publicized marathon ceremony. West is now under a court order temporarily halting the weddings.
In Oregon, Multnomah County commissioners decided Monday that they will continue to issue gay marriage licenses despite legal objections from the state. About 2,000 gay couples from around the nation have flocked to Portland to be married since a March 3 county review of state law concluded that denying such applications would be unconstitutional.
Portland remains the only major city in the United States where gay couples can get married.
Officials in Asbury Park, N.J., sought a court ruling in support of same-sex vows Monday, less than a week after the state attorney general threatened to prosecute anyone who granted the licenses.
Also Monday, the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal agency, filed a lawsuit asking the court to prevent more marriage licenses from being issued to gay couples in Asbury Park.