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Calif. Court Won't Halt Gay Marriages

Mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., Weds Same-Sex Couples

By Evelyn Nieves and Michelle Garcia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 28, 2004; Page A03

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 27 -- California's Supreme Court declined Friday to immediately halt same-sex marriages and nullify more than 3,400 licenses already issued, while the mayor of a town in New York state began marrying same-sex couples.

In a suit filed in San Francisco, Attorney General Bill Lockyer petitioned the high court to order the city to stop defying a state law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, arguing that the California constitution prohibits San Francisco from declaring a state law unconstitutional without a binding appellate court decision affirming that position. The justices declined to rule and told the city and a conservative group that opposes gay marriage to file new legal briefs by March 5.

Brook Garrett blows a kiss after he and Jay Blotcher, left, were married by New Paltz, N.Y., Mayor Jason West. (Darryl Bautista -- AP)

Lockyer's petition also argues that unless there is a binding statewide ruling resolving the validity of these marriages, "there will be tremendous governmental and legal confusion that could affect a wide variety of government functions and personal rights associated with public assistance, property ownership, personal debt liability, spousal and child support, inheritance when there is no will, worker's compensation benefits and tax liabilities."

In response, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said that the attorney general has made an unconvincing case for bypassing lower courts, and that the Supreme Court should be asked to rule regarding rulings in the lower courts, not in the absence of rulings. The court gave no indication when it would respond to Lockyer's petition.

San Francisco officials, who sued the state last week on the grounds that the state law banning gay marriage violates the state constitution's equal-protection clause, have issued more than 3,400 marriage licenses to gay men and lesbians over the past two weeks. Inspired by the city's example, the mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., about 75 miles north of New York City, administered wedding vows to 25 same-sex couples on Friday morning before 1,000 supporters, rows of television cameras and a handful of protesters.

Mayor Jason West, 26, a Green Party member who took office last year, said state law allows him to perform the ceremonies and does not require a license for the marriage to be legally binding.

New Paltz's town clerk had refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, but West provided them with "marriage certificates" that he said are legally binding because they represent his performance of the wedding. About 300 couples put their names on a waiting list to be married there soon and West said he is considering performing more ceremonies.

New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) said he believes state law defines marriage as between a man and a woman and the state Health Department asked New York's attorney general, Eliot L. Spitzer, to seek a court injunction against New Paltz to stop the weddings. Spitzer, a Democrat, refused, saying that such a move should be a last resort and that the legality of the marriages should be decided in the courts.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom thrust the city into the center of the national debate over gay marriage two weeks ago when he ordered officials there to find a way to begin issuing licenses to gay couples. Officials changed the words "bride" and "groom" to "applicant one" and "applicant two" and began issuing licenses to gay couples who flocked to San Francisco from all over the country and overseas.

On Thursday, Rosie O'Donnell, the actress and former talk show host, married her longtime partner in a whirlwind trip to San Francisco she said was prompted by President Bush's announcement on Tuesday endorsing a constitutional amendment, pushed by conservative religious groups, that would ban gay marriage.

On Friday, at a White House appearance with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the president reiterated his support for the constitutional amendment, calling heterosexual marriage "the ideal." Also, the Social Security Administration told its offices nationwide not to accept marriage certificates from San Francisco as proof of identification for newlyweds looking to make name changes on Social Security cards.

Opponents failed twice in their attempts to block the same-sex marriages in hearings before two judges in State Superior Court before asking the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to stop the marriages and nullify the thousands of weddings already performed. The court has not yet indicated whether it would even hear the case. The case is supposed to be heard again on March 29.

Lockyer, a Democrat who has said he personally supports gay marriage but is sworn to uphold California law, has been criticized by conservative groups and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) for not acting quickly to stop San Francisco's move.

Conservative Republicans who started the recall of former Democratic governor Gray Davis last year have announced plans to seek the removal of Lockyer, who they say has "neglected his duty" to enforce state marriage laws.

On Thursday, the Sacramento-based Pro-Family Law Center filed a petition with Lockyer that essentially asks him to fire himself, Newsom and San Francisco County Clerk Nancy Alfaro for breaching their oaths of office by issuing the marriage licenses. City officials called the suit too ridiculous to merit response.

Also, on Thursday, just across the bay from San Francisco, the Oakland City Council introduced a resolution that calls on the county recorder to begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Because only counties can issue marriage licenses -- San Francisco is both a city and a county -- Oakland must seek approval from Alameda County, which includes several cities. Oakland joins Berkeley, also in Alameda County, where officials adopted a resolution on Feb. 17 asking California to stop discriminating against gay men, lesbians and transgendered people.

Lockyer acknowledged Friday that the state Supreme Court does not have a deadline to issue a decision in his petition, and may decide not to hear the case.

Garcia, a special correspondent, reported from New Paltz, N.Y. Staff writer David Von Drehle in Washington contributed to this report.

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