Clergy Defy Law at City Hall

Dozens of Religious Leaders Marry Three Gay Couples

For the first time in history, gay couples were wed at New York’s City Hall by religious leaders defying state law that forbids them from performing marriages for unlicensed couples.

For the three couples, March 18 was their wedding day. For the 30 or so clergy gathered on the steps of City Hall, it was a day of defiance of a law they deem to be unjust. Their actions provided a striking contrast to conservative religious leaders around the country who are leading state and federal efforts to limit marriage to man-woman couples in law and in our constitutions.

“We are here because as officers of the state and religious leaders, we are being forced to discriminate by the current interpretation of the laws of this state that require that we confer upon couples of the opposite sex all of the rights and privileges of civil marriage when we bless their relationships and sign their marriage licenses,” they intoned as one. “We are here to confess that we have been complicit in this unjust practice.

The group pledged to “solemnize same-sex marriages regardless of the narrowness of interpretation of the law imposed upon us by our current government.”

Rev. Pat Bumgardner, pastor of MCC/NY, married Michelle and Montel Cherry-Slack, a lesbian couple, both 30, and Mel Bryant, 38, and Bradley Curry, 40, a gay male couple, as more than 100 activists cheered.

At the same time under a chuppah, Rabbi Ellen Lippman of Congregation Kolot Chayeinu in Park Slope, Brooklyn, married Ruth Finkelstein, 49, and Elizabeth Craig, 40, who have been together for 12 years.

“I feel like a married person,” said Bryant. “I don’t feel like a criminal.”

While Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg dismissed the weddings as “theater,” they are the same kinds of ceremonies that have landed New Paltz Mayor Jason West and Unitarian ministers Dawn Sangrey and Kay Greenleaf in court in recent weeks, charged by the Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams with multiple counts of solemnizing marriages without a license. The mayor and the ministers are all agents of the state when it comes to marriage law and face up to a year in jail and a $500 fine on each count.

New York County D.A. Robert Morgenthau announced he would not prosecute under the state law regarding marriages solemnized without a license on which Williams relied.

“The criminal courts are not the appropriate forum for the resolution of these issues,” he said in a statement. “Ultimately, they will be resolved in civil lawsuits, at least two of which are now pending.” reported exclusively on March 11 that Morgenthau had confided his decision not to make prosecutions for same-sex marriages to at least one other elected official, state Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who sponsors a same-sex marriage bill in the Legislature. Gottfried told Gay City News that Morgenthau would also not prosecute anyone for issuing same-sex marriage licenses, which could open the door to City Clerk Victor Robles doing so. Citing advisory opinions from state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the city’s corporation counsel, however, the clerk’s office has said it takes the view that it cannot legally issue such licenses.

Bumgardner said that she had invited Morgenthau to be at the City Hall ceremony, “but he did not respond.”

Lambda Legal Defense has filed suit in New York Supreme Court on behalf of the right of Daniel Hernandez and Nevin Cohen, a Hells Kitchen gay couple, to marry. Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, is among several attorneys representing ten gay and lesbian couples in Nyack––a group that includes Mayor John Shields and his partner––seeking a declaratory judgment that the state law must recognize gay marriages.

Williams, the Ulster D.A., told The New York Times, “The people empowered by the state to solemnize marriages did so knowing that the couples were not licensed. Regardless of sexual orientation, the state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that marriages are properly licensed.”

Williams also said that his personal views on same-sex marriage, which he did not disclose, “might surprise some.”

Proponents of same-sex marriage are accusing Williams of selective prosecution. Robert Gottlieb, attorney for the two Unitarian ministers, told the newspaper, “Adultery is still technically still a criminal misdemeanor, but I don’t see the district attorney going after anyone in Ulster County on that issue.”

While the plain language of the New York State domestic relations law does prohibit marrying a couple in the absence of a license, the couple is still considered legally married if the person performing the ceremony is authorized to do so. It is the state’s agent who is breaking the law, not the couple.

Same-sex weddings have been conducted by clergy in New York for decades, though it is unclear how many of those officiating, if any, represented the unions as legally recognized. No clergy have been prosecuted for such ceremonies until the Ulster County case.

Out State Sen. Tom Duane (D-West Side) was on hand for the City Hall marriages.

“Some people are portraying this as civil disobedience,” he said. “I think the domestic relations law is gender neutral and I think the courts will rule that way.”

The current debate over solemnizing gay weddings in New York has led to no small amount of confusion in the media. Rev. John Farrell, pastor of Christ Church, an Episcopal parish in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, was briefly in the news last week when the New York Post reported that he would defy the law against performing same-sex marriages and Kings County D.A. Charles Hynes’ office said that it would “investigate” if he did.

While Farrell, a gay man, supports the right of gay couples to civilly marry, he was acting only to initiate holy unions for same sex-couples in his parish after winning the unanimous support of his vestry. Farrell told Gay City News that at least 30 other parishes in the Diocese of Long Island, which includes Brooklyn and Queens, perform holy unions and that Bishop Orris G. Walker, Jr. “announced at our diocesan convention in November that he would allow this to happen and instructed the liturgical commission to develop guidelines and write a service” for the unions. The Episcopal Diocese of New York, led by Bishop Mark Sisk, has not taken these steps and essentially tolerates the fact that some of its parishes have begun officiating at such ceremonies.

Farrell said he believes that the Episcopal Church should develop a “sacramental union” for gay couples, but was not sure “whether we will end up calling it marriage.”

But Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the city’s gay and lesbian synagogue, is taking a more aggressive approach. She issued a letter at City Hall calling upon clergy around the country to perform same-sex marriages and announcing that they are setting up a national registry of such clergy.

“For the state to charge us as criminals for officiating at marriages according to the dictates of our faith is to limit our religious freedom,” she said. “As religious leaders we must go on the record against this threat to our freedom of the pulpit and this denial of civil rights to gay men and lesbians.”

She attached a list of more than 100 clergy of a variety of faiths willing to do so. The pledge can be signed online at

Connie Ress of Marriage Equality said, “This day shows that there are many clergy if not most that support the right of same-sex couples to marry. The right wing doesn’t own religion and they certainly don’t own marriage.”

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