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N.Y. town's mayor charged in gay weddings
Updated: 2004-03-03 11:36

The village's mayor was charged Tuesday with 19 criminal counts for performing weddings for gay couples, an act of defiance that thrust the small community into the center of the national debate over same-sex marriage.

Jason West was charged with solemnizing marriages for couples who had no licenses, a misdemeanor under the domestic relations law, according to Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams.

Although West could face a maximum penalty of a year in jail, the prosecutor said a jail term wasn't being contemplated at this point.

The 26-year-old Green Party mayor said he will plead innocent at his court hearing Wednesday and that he would still go through with his plans to marry as many as two dozen gay couples Saturday.

"I'm incredibly disappointed," West said. "Apparently, it's a crime to uphold the constitution of New York state."

West performed wedding ceremonies for 25 gay couples Friday, making him the second mayor in the country to perform same-sex marriages. It also made this small college village 75 miles north of New York City another flash point in the national debate over gay marriage. More than 3,400 couples have been married in San Francisco and West has about 1,000 couples on a waiting list.

Absent jail, punishment for the misdemeanor could run from a $25 to $500 fine. Williams said he still did not know whether West performed the marriages of his own accord or after getting bad legal advice.

"If he's doing it sincerely out of a moral conviction and out of some naive misunderstanding of the law, then that would enter into the equation," the prosecutor said.

Williams said the misdemeanor complaint lists 19 charges — instead of 25 for the number of weddings performed — because police at the scene provided eyewitness accounts of only 19 ceremonies. He said more charges are possible.

With West vowing to go through with more gay weddings, opponents had hoped Williams would act to stop him. But he said he did not have the legal power to do that, only to file charges after the fact.

West said the prospect of further punishment does not deter him, adding that the newlywed couples inspire him.

"Just the looks on their faces, just the absolute joy of finally being able to be equal," he said. "That is the highest moral calling I could possibly imagine."

State Sen. Thomas Duane, a Manhattan Democrat and one of three openly gay state lawmakers, called Williams' actions "malicious."

"Does the Ulster County D.A. really want to put someone in jail for recognizing long-term relationships between people?" he said. "Does he really want to put in jail someone who recognizes same-sex families? Really, the Ulster County D.A. should be prosecuted for malicious prosecution, which is a felony in New York."

Surprisingly, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger softened his stance on same-sex marriages during an appearance Monday on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Schwarzenegger told Leno that such unions would be "fine with me" if the courts or the voters change state law and make them legal.

While he said he supports the law approved by California voters last year that proclaims marriage can only involve a man and a woman, the Republican added that if the law were changed he'd go along.

"Let the court decide," he said. "Let the people decide."

Until now, Schwarzenegger has sent mixed messages on same-sex marriages, ordering state Attorney General Bill Lockyer to "take immediate steps" to stop San Francisco from allowing them, but doing nothing to enforce that directive.

Earlier, he was criticized by Democrats for raising the rhetoric in a nationally televised interview, when he warned of anarchy and deadly consequences if the San Francisco marriages were not stopped.

"All of a sudden we see riots and we see protests and we see people clashing," Schwarzenegger said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "The next thing we know is there are injured or there are dead people, and we don't want to have that."

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