- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

KINGSTON, N.Y. (AP) — Two ministers were charged with criminal offenses yesterday for “marrying” 13 homosexual couples in what is believed to be the first time in the United States that clergy members have been prosecuted for performing same-sex ceremonies.

District Attorney Donald Williams said homosexual “marriage” laws make no distinction between public officials and members of the clergy who preside over ceremonies.

Unitarian Universalist ministers Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey were charged with multiple counts of solemnizing a marriage without a license, the same charges leveled against New Paltz Mayor Jason West, who last month drew the state into the widening national debate over same-sex unions.

The charges carry fines of $25 to $500 or up to two years in jail.

“As far as I know, that’s unprecedented,” said Mark Shields, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based homosexual rights group. “It’s ridiculous that prosecutors would spend their time charging anyone with a crime who is simply trying to unite two people with basic rights and protections.”

Since Mr. West joined San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom as the only elected officials to “marry” homosexual couples, the issue has spread rapidly across the country. Courts, legislatures and elected officials are wrestling with what supporters say is a matter of civil rights and opponents call an attack on the time-honored institution of marriage.

Miss Greenleaf, who acknowledged performing the ceremonies in New Paltz knowing the couples did not have licenses, said she signed an affidavit for the couples and considers the ceremonies civil.

Mr. Williams said he pressed charges because the “marriages” were “drastically different” from religious ceremonies because Miss Greenleaf and Miss Sangrey publicly said they considered them civil. Some Unitarian ministers, Miss Greenleaf included, have been performing ceremonies for homosexual couples since before the issue entered the national debate.

“It is not our intention to interfere with anyone’s right to express their religious beliefs, including the right of members of the clergy to perform ceremonies where couples are united solely in the eyes of the church or any other faith,” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Williams had said before yesterday’s charges were announced that it would be more difficult considering charges against clergy because the clergy had not sworn to uphold the law.

He said his decision to press charges was influenced by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s opinion that homosexual “marriage” is illegal in New York and by the injunction issued by a state Supreme Court justice against Mr. West.

The ministers performed the ceremonies March 6.

On Saturday, Miss Greenleaf and Miss Sangrey were joined by a third minister, the Rev. Marion Visel, in performing 25 more ceremonies, which went off without protests or arrests. It could not be learned immediately whether more charges would be brought.

The ministers’ attorney, Robert Gottlieb, was unaware of the charges when contacted by the Associated Press and declined comment.

Unitarian Universalists have roots in a movement that rejected Puritan orthodoxy in New England, and they support a search for spiritual truth. Atheists and pagans are a significant part of their membership.

Unitarians have backed homosexual rights since 1970 and endorse same-sex unions. Some churches also offer the couples premarital counseling. The denomination counts nearly 215,000 members nationwide, according to the 2004 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.

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