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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 March, 2004, 00:19 GMT
US clergy charged over gay unions
Wedding couple in New Paltz, NY
The ministers wed gay couples in New Paltz, New York
Two New York state ministers have been charged for marrying 13 gay couples.

Unitarian Universalist ministers Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey were charged with multiple counts of solemnising a marriage without a licence.

The charges are the same as those brought against New Paltz Mayor Jason West, who married 25 gay couples in a marathon ceremony last month.

The charges may be the first brought against clergy for performing same-sex unions, says a gay rights group.

"As far as I know that's unprecedented," said a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington.

'Drastically different'

Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams said he decided to press charges because the marriages were "drastically different" from religious ceremonies, as Ms Greenleaf and Ms Sangrey had publicly said they considered them civil.

He said gay marriage laws made no distinction between public officials and members of the clergy who presided over wedding ceremonies.

Before Monday's charges were announced, Mr Williams had said that it would be more difficult to consider charges against clergy - because the clergy had not sworn to uphold the law.

He said his decision to press charges was influenced by the New York attorney general's opinion that gay marriage was illegal in New York - and by the injunction issued by a state Supreme Court justice against Mr West.

Performing ceremonies

Ms Greenleaf is among some Unitarian ministers who were performing ceremonies for gay couples before the issue became a national debate.

The ministers performed the weddings on 6 March.

Ms Greenleaf has acknowledged she performed the ceremonies in New Paltz knowing the couples did not have licences.

She said she signed an affidavit for the couples and considered the ceremonies civil.

On Saturday, Ms Greenleaf and Ms Sangrey were joined by a third minister in performing 25 more ceremonies.

It is not yet clear if more charges will be brought.

If convicted, they each face a fine of $25 to $500 or time in prison.

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