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New York town's mayor marries same-sex couples

From Jonathan Wald

Twenty-one couples exchanged vows in New Paltz, New York, on Friday.
Twenty-one couples exchanged vows in New Paltz, New York, on Friday.

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New York

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The same-sex marriage controversy moved to a tiny Hudson River village, where the mayor of New Paltz, New York, began performing same-sex marriages Friday.

Mayor Jason West said he considers it his "moral obligation" to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

He started conducting ceremonies, the first of their kind in the state, for about a dozen couples in front of the Village Hall at noon. West said he would marry same-sex couples until 2 p.m., according to the New Paltz village Web site.

Hundreds of people have called inquiring about getting married in New Paltz, a town of 6,000 about 75 miles north of Manhattan, a mayor's spokesman said. Those unable to get married Friday were instructed to complete an online form to be added to the waiting list.

"It's time that I added my voice and the voice of the people of the village of New Paltz to that growing chorus for fairness, equality before the law and basic family values," West said.

Billiam van Roestenberg and his partner, Jeffrey McGowan, a retired U.S. Army major who served in the first Gulf War, were among the couples West married Friday.

"It's just a celebration of love toward one another and to show our family and friends that we're proud and look forward to spending the rest of our lives together," van Roestenberg said.

The New York State Health Department questioned West's decision, arguing that the state's domestic relations law does not allow marriage between same-sex couples.

The department issued a warning to West in a statement released Thursday night.

"A municipal clerk who issues a marriage license outside these guidelines, and any person who solemnizes such a marriage, would be violating state law and subject to the penalties in law," the department said.

The 26-year-old West, elected in 2003 as the state's first Green Party official, said he questioned the state department's interpretation of the law.

"The laws governing marriage in New York state are gender-neutral and the constitution of New York requires equal protection under those laws," he said.

West said the issue was one of civil rights as well as morality.

"Separate but equal didn't work for blacks and whites and it doesn't work for gays and straight people," he said.

New York Gov. George Pataki has not commented publicly on West's decision, but he said Wednesday that state marriage laws state that "marriage is between a man and a woman."

Tuesday, President Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, calling heterosexual marriage "the most fundamental institution of civilization."

West said Bush's support of an amendment was a factor in his decision.

"If anything," West said, it "gave me even more conviction in marrying same-sex couples."

West's decision is the latest of several moves lately that, Bush said, prompted him to push for an amendment.

In San Francisco, more than 3,000 couples, including Rosie O'Donnell, have been married since Mayor Gavin Newsom permitted gay marriages on February 12.

Californian Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he was "very much against" same-sex marriage and the state's attorney-general said he will ask California's Supreme Court to decide whether Newsom's action violates state law.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that gays and lesbians were entitled to full, equal marriage rights and that civil unions were unconstitutional. The state starts allowing same-sex weddings in May.

In other states, including Georgia, Maryland and Michigan, legislatures are considering amending their states' constitutions to ban same-sex marriage.

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