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Banns & Circuses 

The issue of the rights of same-sex couples has been gaining momentum in the United States for the past several years. In 1999 Vermont became the first state to recognize same-sex civil unions, which raised numerous questions about recognition of these unions and the couples’ legal rights in the rest of the country.

On February 4, 2004, the supreme Court of Massachusetts ruled on a case that was initiated three years prior, stating that the civil unions for same sex couples did not fulfill the right of required equal protection mandated by the state’s constitution. The court stated that only marriage would meet the constitutional standards.
California became the first state in the union to perform same-sex weddings when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome wed 15 couples on February 17. Bernadillo, New Mexico, followed suit shortly thereafter. Since that time several thousand weddings have been performed in California, and the national debate about same-sex unions has become front-page news. At the end of February, President George W. Bush called for an amendment to the us Constitution banning same-sex marriages.

To date, at least 30 state legislatures have taken some form of action on the question, with many making attempts to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Several of those bills have been shelved or defeated; there is legislation currently pending in as many as 12 states.

On February 27, Jason West, the Mayor of New Paltz, joined the national debate on same-sex marriages by performing weddings for 25 gay and lesbian couples. Though the New York State Department of Health had refused to issue marriage licenses to any of the couples, based on legal advice West proceeded with the ceremonies that solemnized the unions. West has since been charged by Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams with 19 counts of violating state marriage laws, and an injunction has been issued against his performing more solemnizations.

Well over 200 people attended the ceremonies, which were held in New Paltz’s Peace Park, including family and friends of the couples, supporters and protestors of the event (the former far outnumbering the latter) and the media, which turned out in surprisingly large numbers. The events catapulted the mayor onto the national stage, despite his ongoing statements that he is not the story; equal rights protection under the law is.

Though West has been constrained from marrying more gay couples, two Unitarian Universalist ministers, Rev. Kay Greenleaf and Rev. Dawn Sangrey, have performed 15 additional ceremonies in New Paltz, and have now been charged by the District Attorney as well.

Each day that goes by brings a new development, both locally and nationally, and Mayor West continues to be a high profile player in this controversy. We caught up with him recently (not an easy task, given the recent demands on his time by media ranging from New York magazine to a March 16 appearance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”), to try to gain some insight into his part in and reaction to all that has happened.
—Amanda Bader

CHRONOGRAM: Had you ever presided over a wedding before February 27th?
jw: Nope, that was my first wedding.

C: There were hundreds of spectators and members of the media at the ceremonies; there was a huge amount of hoopla. Were you able to step aside from the whole phenomenon and experience how it felt to join two people in marriage?
jw: Actually, it was incredible—and it wasn’t the spectacle that was incredible, it was seeing the couples so excited and fulfilled. Some of them had been waiting twenty years, and the expressions on their faces were amazing. It was really incredible.

C: When did you decide that this issue was an important one?
jw: Performing same-sex marriages has been on my mind since I ran for mayor. Actually, since even before that. I’ve been advocating it publicly for four years now.

The subject first came up when I ran for a seat in the state assembly. The question was asked at one of the county candidate forums and I said then what I’ve been saying ever since: I was in favor of same-sex marriages.

I knew I wanted to perform these marriages, but I hadn’t been asked by anyone. There were quite a few people who knew couples who might want to get married, but just like in any other relationship, it’s a big commitment—it’s not something people do very quickly. But it was one of the dozen or two things I wanted to do as the mayor of New Paltz.

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  • Amanda Bader interviews New Paltz Mayor Jason West.

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