NEW PALTZ, N.Y. - The battle over gay marriage in the United States spread on Friday to a small New York town whose mayor began marrying same-sex couples in the first such ceremonies in the state.
The weddings in the village of New Paltz, about 80 miles north of Manhattan, came on the day California's attorney general planned to ask that state's Supreme Court to rule on the legality of over 3,300 gay weddings in the past two weeks in San Francisco.
New Paltz Mayor Jason West -- the state's first elected Green Party mayor -- married couples in a festive atmosphere outside Village Hall in what the 26-year-old official has described as "legal marriage ceremonies." West officiated at 19 gay weddings on Friday.
Some 200 people cheered and held up placards saying: "Congratulations" and "Bush Get Out of My Bedroom," while a much smaller group of protesters held signs saying: "Gay Marriage is Morally Wrong" and "Pray for Them."
Among those who tied the knot in the tiny college town were Billiam van Rostenberg, 39, from Long Island, and Major Jeffrey McGowan, 38.
"My whole life I felt discriminated against. I feel a great sense of relief. I am very happy," van Rostenberg said after his nuptials to his partner of six years. "We live in a country where good things can still happen."
West ended each ceremony saying, "By the powers vested in me by the state of New York, I now declare you legally wed," altering the normal "husband and wife" ending to that phrase.
Gov. George Pataki told reporters in New York that state law defines marriage as "between a man and a woman.
"If people want to change the law, that's (a matter) for the legislature," Pataki said.
New York's Department of Health said in a statement it asked State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to seek an injunction against the New Paltz mayor and to declare the weddings "null and void." A spokesman for Spitzer's office said the request was denied because no "immediate and irreparable injury or harm has been caused."
Gay marriage has become a contentious election-year issue.
Weddings in San Francisco grabbed media attention after that city's mayor defied state law to allow gay nuptials. On Thursday, comedian Rosie O'Donnell married her domestic partner in San Francisco, long a center of gay rights.
A New Mexico county also granted same-sex marriage licenses recently.
Massachusetts' top court has ordered lawmakers to allow gay marriages by mid-May, saying anything less than fully fledged marriage would make gays second-class citizens.
President Bush said this week he would support a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.
Some of those in New Paltz said they rushed from as far away as New Jersey and Long Island after hearing of the planned weddings hours earlier. More couples showed up than West said he would be able to marry on Friday, forcing him to turn some away.
The marriages went ahead even though the town's clerk had refused to issue the couples with state marriage licenses.
Gays in Long Island said they would push for gay marriage next week, organizing an effort to march into dozens of town clerk offices until they find one who will marry them.
If none agreed, Long Island Coalition for Same-Sex Marriage Executive Director David Kilmnick said the group will file a lawsuit on the grounds the New York state Constitution bans discrimination.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told WABC radio he had no plans to offer gay marriage in America's most-populous city.
© Reuters 2004