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N.J. town halts gay weddings

State attorney general threatens to bring criminal charges

From Jonathan Wald
CNN

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(CNN) -- The city of Asbury Park, New Jersey, has stopped marrying same-sex couples after the state's attorney general threatened city officials with criminal charges.

In letters sent Tuesday, Attorney General Peter Harvey said he would prosecute Asbury Park's mayor, deputy mayor and city clerk if they continued to solemnize same-sex ceremonies, issue marriage licenses, or even accept applications for licenses.

The officials received the attorney general's warning one day after New Jersey's first and only same-sex marriage.

"We urge you to carry out your official duties in a manner consistent with the well-established court decisions and advice set forth in the accompanying letter to avoid the initiation of legal action by our office," Harvey wrote.

The fight for same-sex marriage rights has spread quickly from state to state after President Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment that would ban such marriages.

Bush made the endorsement after the mayor of San Francisco started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Similar tactics have since been used by government officials in New Paltz, New York, Portland, Oregon, and Sandoval County, New Mexico.

Massachusetts' highest court has ruled the state must permit same-sex marriages starting in May. It would become the first state to allow such unions. Several states, including New Jersey, have domestic partnership laws or civil unions.

During an emergency Wednesday morning meeting, the Asbury Park City Council voted 5-0 to stop taking applications from gay couples seeking marriage licenses, but to file a lawsuit seeking a court opinion on the issue.

"We have been acting in good faith," said Deputy Mayor Jim Bruno, who conducted Monday's marriage. "We strongly believe we have acted in accordance with the U.S. Constitution and New Jersey's constitution."

"While I respect that it's Mr. Harvey's responsibility to enforce the law, at this point Mr. Harvey's position is an interpretation of the law. It is not law," said Terence Reidy, Asbury Park's City Council manager.

"State law doesn't officially endorse same-sex marriage, but nor does it prohibit it. So we are looking for a judge's clarification on this," Bruno said.

Eighteen couples had filed for a license through Tuesday afternoon and 10 of the applications were completed, city officials said.

Same-sex marriage has so far been rejected by state courts.

"The state is bound by the court, and the court has held that it is not legal," Gov. James E. McGreevey said. "Ultimately, we're a nation of laws, and we need to abide by the laws."

McGreevey urged gay couples to take advantage of the state's recently passed domestic-partnership measure.

Lambda Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit two years ago seeking to get marriage rights for same-sex couples in New Jersey but lost. It is appealing the case.

"The attorney general should understand better than anyone that local officials must abide by the state constitution, which mandates that everyone be treated equally," said Michael Adams from Lambda Legal Defense.

"It's a shame when attorneys general are in a position of dissuading local officials from upholding the constitution."

New Jersey is one of 12 states nationwide that does not have a statute explicitly banning same-sex marriages.


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