New Paltz Mayor Defends Gay Marriage

Jason West spent his first day off in nine days marching in the Queens St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The part-time mayor of upstate New Paltz has made a living painting houses since he was 15, but that job is not keeping him occupied.

West, now 26, is better known for the 25 gay and lesbian marriages he solemnized on February 27. That matter drew international attention to West and New Paltz. It has also kept him from work.

“I borrowed some money from some friends of mine and took a week off work to deal with it,” he said on March 7 in Queens. “Hopefully, now that things are quieting down a little bit, I can get back to work this week.”

Calling the parade a day off might be a stretch. When West wasn’t surrounded by reporters, photographers, and news cameras, he was shaking hands with other politicians and well wishers.

There were plenty of opportunities to question West because the event organizers delayed the start of the parade for 90 minutes waiting for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to show up. Both mayors at one event provided some drama.

While the Ulster Count district attorney has charged West with 19 misdemeanor counts of solemnizing a marriage without a marriage license, Bloomberg has gone back and forth about whether or not he supports same sex marriage.

There was a single moment when the two mayors spoke and Bloomberg, perhaps sensing the inevitable comparisons that would be made between the two of them, looked unhappy.

West was charitable.

“It seems to me that Mayor Bloomberg is looking for a way to become an ally,” he said “I believe he advocates for the laws to be changed. I’m sure he will do what he thinks is best. It’s a matter of conscience for each of us.”

For West, the matter is clear. Allowing gay or lesbian couples to marry is simply the right thing to do. He describes the push for marriage as a “civil rights movement” and, in a speech before the parade began, he likened it to past efforts to secure equality for African Americans and to win the vote for women. He insists that queer unions be called marriage.

“These people are married in the same sense that any straight couple is married and it should just be called a marriage,” he said. “Trying to come up with a different name for it inevitably will lead to these being seen as a second class kind of relationship.”

West is also clear that religious groups are free to marry or not marry any couple, but the government may not discriminate against one class of taxpayers.

“From a religious point of view, the decision about whether to marry gay couples is a decision to be made by the clergy and their congregation,” he said. “For myself and other mayors or public officials or civil servants we have an obligation, legally and morally, to insure there is no discrimination in the marriages we perform.”

West will not be marrying any more lesbian or gay couples before April 5. On March 5, a state judge issued a restraining order that prevents him from solemnizing such unions for 30 days. West has the criminal charges to contend with.

“I don’t expect to have either jail time or a fine,” he said. “I pled not guilty and I expect that to be upheld by the courts.”

West, a Green Party member, became mayor last June after he made two unsuccessful runs for the state legislature. While Ulster County is split, politically, between Democrats, Republicans, and independents, New Paltz, a college town, sits in a left-leaning pocket. While he backed gay marriage before, he ran for mayor on other issues.

“In the campaign we emphasized affordable housing, combating sprawl,” West said. “There has been a wave of development coming north from New York City over the last ten years… We’re trying to make sure that is steered in a way that the community wants it to happen.”

Several gay or lesbian couples had asked him to marry them last year and he had intended on waiting for better weather in the spring, but events across the nation spurred him to action.

“The inspiring events in Massachusetts, San Francisco, and New Mexico combined with the president’s announcement that he wants to use the Constitution to restrict American’s freedoms made it clear to myself and others that it was time to join this civil rights movement,” West said.

While being respectful of his fellow mayor, West did say that New Paltz has a waiting list of 3,500 gay or lesbian couples who would like to marry. It would help his town of 6,000 if Bloomberg would pitch in.

“I do hope that Mayor Bloomberg comes out and starts issuing same-sex marriage licenses,” West said. “We’re a small village in upstate New York and we can’t handle the load we’ve been getting. Just for selfish reasons, we need New York City on board so these couples can get married.”

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