Stepping into the gay marriage fight for the first time since it erupted in New York a week ago, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer warned yesterday that state law does not permit same-sex unions and cautioned that ceremonies already performed there may be illegal.
Meanwhile, a new front in the battle over same-sex marriage opened yesterday in Portland, Ore., where county officials issued dozens of licenses to gay couples after deciding that state law allowed the unions.
Mayors and county officials in four states have allowed gay marriages, including thousands in San Francisco, which started the wedding march Feb. 12. The marriages have met with calls for a constitutional amendment banning the unions.
In Portland, more than 150 gay couples lined up to get marriage licenses after Multnomah County officials decided it would be unconstitutional to deny them.
In his advisory opinion in New York, Spitzer discouraged officials from presiding over gay marriages, challenging a movement that began in California but is now engulfing New York.
Far from resolving the debate, the opinion immediately fueled further dissension and defiance and quickened a likely collision with the courts.
Despite Spitzer's recommendations, Mayor Jason West of New Paltz, who is facing criminal charges for officiating at 25 ceremonies last week, vowed to continue this weekend, and yet another mayor, John Shields of Nyack, said he, too, would perform same-sex marriages beginning today.
"I was hoping that Eliot Spitzer would be more courageous," said Shields, a Democrat who participated in a state Senate hearing on same-sex marriages in Albany yesterday. "If you are personally in favor of it then you should be helping to move this issue forward."
Though Spitzer said "I personally support" gays and lesbians in "their desire to marry," he concluded that references to "husband," "wife," "groom" and "bride" in New York's 108-year-old Domestic Relations Law made it clear that the Legislature never intended marriage to apply to members of the same sex.
A day before a group of gays and lesbians were scheduled to demand marriage licenses from the New York City clerk, Spitzer's conclusions were also echoed by the city's top lawyer.
"Those are not proper marriages, are not legal marriages pursuant to the statute," Spitzer said at a Manhattan news conference, conceding that the constitutionality of the unions will likely be determined in court.
"In many ways, the debate over same-sex marriage is just beginning," he said. "No one should conclude the attorney general's opinion is the last word on the topic."
As the issue flared in New York, Republicans in Washington, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, called for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.
"Same-sex marriage is likely to spread through all 50 states in the coming years," Frist said.
Some activists in New York lauded Spitzer's opinion that marriages and civil unions performed in Canada and elsewhere are valid in New York. The Empire State Pride Agenda, the state's largest gay rights group, called that portion of the ruling "a great victory."
'Got to stand up'
State Sen. Thomas Duane, a Manhattan Democrat, the only openly gay member of the Senate, chastised Spitzer, saying he "seems to agree that recognizing the commitment of gay and lesbian relationships is a crime."
"People are already married in New York State, and he's got to stand up," Duane said.
Spitzer's 28-page opinion noted that there are grounds for New York's courts to find in favor of same-sex marriages based on the equal protection afforded in state and federal constitutions. And the opinion pointed out that state lawmakers and courts have already "recognized the legitimacy of committed same-sex relationships" by protecting partners from eviction and barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In balancing competing legal issues, Spitzer found himself in the middle of a boiling national debate and in a delicate political position at home. He is expected to run for governor in 2006 and though gay rights activists and their allies have great sway, lawmakers and the public have yet to overwhelmingly embrace the issue.
And after forging a national reputation as a legal crusader reforming Wall Street, Spitzer declined yesterday to take action to enforce his opinion, again refusing to seek an injunction against the marriages as requested last week by Republican Gov. George Pataki.
California's attorney general also is caught up in the debate.
The Campaign for California Families, a conservative group, demanded that Attorney General Bill Lockyer follow the lead of New York officials and file criminal charges against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was the first to authorize gay weddings.
Lockyer spokeswoman Hallye Jordan said that "the attorney general believes the best way to resolve the issue is to seek a final resolution by the California Supreme Court."
Same-sex marriage licenses also have been issued by a county clerk in New Mexico, but the state attorney general declared the licenses invalid.
Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.