Dawn Sangrey and Kay Greenleaf, Unitarian Universalist ministers, were charged with misdemeanors for violating the state's domestic relations law by solemnizing 13 marriages without a license on March 6.
They could face up to a year in jail for the same actions as New Paltz Mayor Jason West, who brought the national furor over same-sex marriage to New York by performing 25 gay marriages last month before he was ordered by a judge to stop.
Robert Gottlieb, a Suffolk County attorney representing the ministers, said Greenleaf, 64, of Poughkeepsie, and Sangrey, 62, of Bedford Hills, will plead not guilty.
"The decision to prosecute members of the clergy is terribly misguided and an abuse of our criminal justice system," Gottlieb said. "This entire issue has no place in the criminal courts."
Legal experts and human rights advocates said that the charges brought by Ulster County prosecutors appear to be the first levied against clergy who commonly conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies and challenge the bedrock principle of the separation of church and state.
Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams said that, although he supports the rights of clergy to perform religious marriages, Greenleaf and Sangrey went beyond that by officiating at civil ceremonies. The ministers issued affidavits of marriage to the 13 couples.
The two women, as well as a third, Marion Visel, of Hamden, Conn., could face additional charges for presiding over 25 same-sex marriages in New Paltz on Saturday. And more gay marriages are expected in New Paltz this weekend, said Charles Clement, a spokesman for the New Paltz Equality Initiative, which has taken charge of the burgeoning movement.
"We're going to move forward with four ministers and 25 couples," said Clement, 44. The clergy stepped in after West was ordered by a state judge to temporarily stop performing the ceremonies in response to a civil suit.
Last week, the 26-year-old Green Party mayor met with state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who has advised state officials not to perform same-sex marriages without licenses until the courts rule on the matter.
Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.