Former New Paltz Mayor on Legal Challenges of Same-Sex Marriage


Former New Paltz Mayor Jason West married couples before it was technically legal in New York City. With such a bold step, however, there were major legal challenges.

“I investigated whether same-sex marriage was illegal in New York State. And it turns out that it was not openly legal, but it was also not prohibited, ”said the former mayor.

And there began a deep dive into the state law books.

What would you like to know

  • Paltz’s new same-sex marriages in 2004 came just 15 days after similar ceremonies took place in San Francisco

  • Then-mayor Jason West had a team of eight lawyers and 12 paralegals ready to fight any lawsuits against him.

  • Shortly after New Paltz’s weddings, Hudson Valley couples began suing city clerks for refusing to issue licenses to them.

  • A restraining order, preventing West from performing other ceremonies, was finally lifted

“In state law, marriage was defined in New York State as a mere contract between the parties. No gender mentioned in terms of who was involved in this contract, ”West said.

It was enough, West said, for them to move forward with a plan.

“The Family Relations Act, the section that defines how a person gets married, says you need two things to get married,” he said. “You need a valid marriage license, and second, you need someone who has the authority to perform your marriage. A celebration is just someone like a mayor, priest or ship captain who says “by the power bestowed upon me”. “

After same-sex marriages in San Francisco had occurred a few days before, New York State made its position clear.

“The New York State Department of Health has told all state employees that they cannot license couples, not because of anything in the law, but because the form says ‘the groom and the bride’, ”he said. “And this right, there is the whole point of rest of the state case against same-sex marriage in 2004.”

But they found a loophole.

“That same section of the law that says you need a license and a celebration to get married says if you don’t have a license you are still legally married if as long as your ceremony has been properly performed. “West said.

Then-county prosecutor Don Williams warned West the day before his impending arrest if he went ahead with the marriages. How did West prepare for this?

“Well, I’ve been arrested before so it wouldn’t have been the first time,” he said.

When the day came, Mayor West said village police had arrived at Peace Park, where they were standing next door.

“It was like the third or fourth couple, and my lawyer leans in and says, ‘they’re not doing anything; I think you are doing well, ”he said.

What followed next, however, West expected. A state judge issued a restraining order against him, preventing him from performing other ceremonies.

“For restraining orders, you have to show what is the ‘immediate and irreparable harm’ that is avoided. The judge, in a very brief ruling, literally declared that the immediate and irreparable harm to my pursuit of these marriages would be “lawlessness, chaos and the collapse of Western civilization,” “he said.

With eight lawyers and 12 paralegals working on his behalf, this only marked the beginning of a ripple effect.

“At that time, same-sex couples sued their municipal workers for refusing to give out their marriage licenses on civil rights grounds. A city supervisor sued his own city clerk in Orange County for the right to have a marriage license, ”West said. “I noticed, after weddings, a lot more same-sex couples holding hands in New Paltz. It was something that was done but it was almost like a bit of an act of bravery. The whole community was supportive of this and people felt safe. “

The restraining order was lifted and West did not end up in jail. But has the impact of her decision changed her life in any way?

“It reaffirmed my belief in the power of local governments to do good in the world. It’s going to take a lot of energy from you, but you can’t lose sight of the opportunities along the way as you pursue your priorities, ”West said. “But if you are in the right place at the right time, you can’t be afraid to pull the trigger.”

Would he do it again?

“In the blink of an eye,” he said.

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