Unitarian Universalist ministers began performing religious marriage ceremonies for gay couples long before the issue entered the national debate.

So when ministers Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey were charged with criminal offenses Monday for marrying 13 gay couples, critics said the action was unprecedented and accused prosecutors of violating religious freedom.

"The Constitution's promise of religious freedom, and the doctrine of church autonomy should permit clergy to officiate at religious ceremonies without state interference," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (search), the public policy arm of Reform Judaism that supports gay marriage.

Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams said gay marriage laws make no distinction between public officials and members of the clergy who preside over wedding ceremonies.

Williams said he decided to press charges because the marriages were "drastically different" from religious ceremonies since Greenleaf and Sangrey publicly said they considered them civil.

"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.

Greenleaf and 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. 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.

In a statement, the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association (search) said its ministers have been officiating at religious marriages for same-sex couples for more than 35 years.

"Unitarian Universalists believe that equal marriage rights for all is a matter of justice," the statement said." And in the long run, we have faith that justice will prevail."

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.

The ministers performed the weddings March 6.

On Saturday, Greenleaf and Sangrey were joined by a third minister in performing 25 more ceremonies, which went off without protests or arrests. It could not immediately be learned if more charges would be brought.

A spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign (search), a Washington-based gay rights group, said the charges were unprecedented.

"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," said spokesman Mark Shields.

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.

West married 25 gay and lesbian couples Feb. 27 in a highly publicized marathon ceremony, and is now under a court order temporarily halting the weddings.

Since West joined San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom 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.

In Oregon, Multnomah County commissioners decided Monday that they will continue to issue gay marriage licenses despite legal objections from the state. Portland remains the only major city in the United States where gay couples can get married.