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Mayor vows to keep marrying same-sex couples

New Paltz mayor calls it issue of civil rights, morality

From Jonathan Wald

Mayor Jason West, right, married 21 same-sex couples Friday in New Paltz, New York.
Mayor Jason West, right, married 21 same-sex couples Friday in New Paltz, New York.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- The mayor of a tiny village in upstate New York who conducted same-sex marriages last week said Monday he will continue marrying any couple who requests a wedding.

New Paltz Mayor Jason West married 25 couples Friday, the first marriages of their kind in New York, despite warnings from state officials that the weddings were illegal.

West said it was his "moral obligation" to issue marriage certificates to gay couples.

More than 1,000 couples have contacted the village office about getting married in New Paltz, a village of 6,000 about 75 miles north of Manhattan. The village set up an online waiting list to accommodate the demand.

"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 major in the army who served in the Persian Gulf War, were among the same-sex couples West married last week.

"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.

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 told CNN.

The New York State Health Department, which issues marriage licenses, questioned West's decision, saying the state's Domestic Relations Law does not allow marriage between same-sex couples and that New York courts recognize marriages between men and women only.

But the 26-year-old mayor, elected last year as the state's first Green Party official to hold office, challenged the department's interpretation of the law.

"It's my opinion that it's the Department of Health that's breaking the law in refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses to same-sex couples," West said. "The laws governing marriage in New York state are gender-neutral, and the constitution of New York requires equal protection under those laws."

New York Gov. George Pataki disagrees.

"My view has always been and I believe it's the law in New York state, that marriage in New York is between a man and a woman, period. That's the law; it's been that way for 200 years," Pataki said.

President Bush endorsed the idea of a constitutional amendment Tuesday 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, the president's stance "gave me even more conviction in marrying same-sex couples."

West's actions are the latest of several moves that, Bush said, has prompted him to push for an amendment.

In San Francisco, California, more than 3,000 couples have been married since Mayor Gavin Newsom permitted gay marriages February 12. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he was "very much against" same-sex marriage and has ordered the state's attorney general to ask the state's Supreme Court for a ruling on whether San Francisco's actions violate state law.

At the beginning of February, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that gays and lesbians were entitled to full, equal marriage rights, and that civil unions were unconstitutional. Same-sex couples will be able to marry in Massachusetts beginning in May.

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

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