ON THE RECORD/Entering the fray of a national controversy
In late February, Jason West, mayor of the village of New Paltz, N.Y., added to the growing controversy surrounding gay marriages when he conducted same-sex weddings in his community. By early March, he had been charged with 19 criminal counts for solemnizing marriages for couples who had no licenses. Later that month, a judge ordered West to discontinue performing same-sex marriages. In the following interview, Mayor West explains the rational for his actions and what he hopes to accomplish by them.
Q: What inspired you to conduct same-sex marriages?
West: The simple answer is fairness. Committed couples seeking to join their lives together in a loving partnership recognized under law are a benefit to any society. Exclusion of gay couples from the right to such partnership, simply because their love does not fall within the majority paradigm, cannot be defended as just or fair.
In terms of law, the New York state constitution is gender neutral. So, in a very real sense, I was not “inspired” to offer same-sex marriage, but as an elected official sworn to uphold the state constitution, I had an obligation to do so.
Q: In a statement you said you “will continue doing what I can to advance the cause.” What might that entail?
A: When the legal prohibitions are resolved, I will again solemnize marriages in the village of New Paltz. While that process unfolds, I will use the bully pulpit this controversy has provided to address the issue, in speeches and in the media, reminding everyone that in a country governed by a Constitution and legal precepts embodying equality and justice for all, there is no legal reason to deny same-sex couples the rights and benefits of marriage.
Q: Have you received support from other government leaders?
A: Yes. Mayor John Shields of Nyack came to my office to announce his plans to sue New York state for denying a marriage license to himself and his partner. The mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., also has started a campaign to overturn the laws that are used to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The supervisor in New Paltz has been vocally supportive in public. Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco has called to express his support and offer whatever aid he can provide. The office of Congressman Dennis Kucinich has contacted my office to offer support, and I also have spoken with the Reverend Al Sharpton, who has issued statements of support, as well.
Q: What has been the local reaction to your marrying same-sex couples?
A: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, as best evidenced by the fact it is essentially business as usual here in New Paltz. I am working on the budget. I am trying to complete plans for a solar power array on village hall and seeking to use reed bed technology to address the woes of the village sewage treatment plant. We are filling potholes left by New York’s winter and doing the math to keep taxes stable. Our residents are participating in governing their village as if the controversy never happened.
Q: Would you advise your fellow mayors across America to follow in your footsteps?
A: Absolutely. Throughout history, freedom has extended itself into new populations, and the advance of freedom is now allowing gays and lesbians to assume their rightful status as full citizens. Any mayor [or] any public official should welcome the stability and productivity that a marriage helps foster in their citizens. Naturally, each mayor must examine the legalities of [his or her] state and locality regarding the method [he or she] chooses to express support for same-sex marriages.
Q: What do you hope will be accomplished by your continued commitment to same-sex marriages?
A: Pete Seeger wrote a song about the famous folk dictum, how the longest journey is completed step by step, how the largest arch is finished brick by brick. My actions are simply part of a continuum of acts large and small by people all over the country that foster a growing awareness that same-sex civil marriage is a matter of fairness. My continued support for same-sex marriage will encourage other officials and citizens, as well as the media, to think about the issue. My continued support, and the actions of all the famous and all the unknown activists and citizens working on this issue, will serve to advance America and humanity’s historic struggle toward greater freedom for individuals to participate in society in the productive manner of their choosing.