West Looks Back on Battle

West looks back on battle that fizzled

D.A.'s motives are questioned

by Larry Fisher-Hertz
Poughkeepsie Journal
Sunday, February 26, 2006

NEW PALTZ — Mayor Jason West sounds almost wistful as he talks about facing criminal charges after he performed 24 same-sex marriages in a park in the village two years ago.

"I was really looking forward to going to trial," West said last week as he reminisced about the weddings and the court battles he faced in their wake.
Jason West
Days after the ceremonies, Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams filed criminal charges against West, claiming the mayor had violated the state's health laws by marrying couples who had not been issued licenses.

Town Justice Jonathan Katz threw the case out of court in June 2004, but Williams was successful in having the charges reinstated in the appellate courts. But last summer, the district attorney announced he would not take the case to trial.

Williams said at the time he was declining to prosecute West for three reasons: a state Supreme Court judge had already issued an injunction banning the mayor from performing any more weddings, the town justice's ruling in West's favor had been reversed by higher courts and litigation was pending on the constitutionality of gay marriage.

Last week, West offered another opinion on why the district attorney had decided not to take the case to trial.

"He [Williams] is a coward," the mayor said. "He could have dropped the charges a lot sooner, but he pursued them for political gain until he was facing a jury trial. He was afraid he'd lose."

Williams said he had not changed his position on the case since he announced last summer he had decided not to pursue the prosecution.

"I appreciate [West's] position," the district attorney said. "However, I previously stated my reasons, and those reasons haven't changed."

Subject rarely raised

Now that the media spotlight has been turned off in New Paltz for two years, West said the topic of gay marriage rarely comes up in the village hall. "Ninety-nine percent of my time is spent on other things — getting the sewers fixed and dealing with zoning and land use issues," he said.

"I've lectured at some colleges about [gay marriage], and I once debated a Fox News commentator about it," the mayor said. "But it rarely comes up in New Paltz at all."

Andrew Kossover, West's attorney during his legal battles with the district attorney, said last week he sometimes meets people on the streets of the village who still ask him about the mayor's case.

"People are interested in cases involving civil rights," Kossover said, "and a lot of people greatly respect Jason for the stand he took."

Kossover said he didn't think Williams had pursued the criminal charges against his client for purely political reasons.

"I don't think Don was doing it for the publicity," he said. "He felt the mayor was publicly violating the law and, despite his personal beliefs [Williams has said he is not opposed the gay marriage], felt he had to take action."

Kossover added he wondered at the time why Williams had decided to pursue the case when prosecutors in other communities where same-sex weddings were being performed had not.

"[Williams] said the public good was not further served by continuing to prosecute the case," Kossover said. "But what public good was served in commencing it?"

West, meanwhile, said he had no regrets about anything he had done.

"You never know what the fallout of something like this will be," he said. "A lot of college students — most of them straight — came out to watch what was going on [at the weddings in New Paltz]. Sometimes, once you experience something like that, it stays with you the rest of your life. Who knows how those students might have been inspired?"

Larry Fisher-Hertz can be reached at [email protected]

Watershed Event Made Big Waves

Gay marriages world news

by Jeremiah Horrigan
Times Herald-Record

[email protected]

New Paltz -- No one, least of all Jason West, expected it to be as big as it was. Front page news locally, yeah, but not nationally. Not internationally. Nothing that anyone would much remember two weeks after it happened.

But it's been two years now, and people have yet to forget the ceremonies in the surprising winter sun, the crush of shouting reporters, the cheers and tears and declarations of love and defiance. For the legally inclined, 25 same-sex marriages were "solemnized" by West that day. Most of the rest of the world called it the day that gay marriage transcended its legal definitions and turned into something else - a watershed sociopolitical event that reflected both the hopes and fears of everyone who witnessed it.

West sounds weary and impatient when asked to look back on the event. He's been the lightning rod toward which opponents of gay marriage (and, he says, gays themselves) have directed their wrath. Eighteen misdemeanor criminal charges against him were dropped last year by Ulster County District Attorney Don Williams. But a lawsuit brought by a legal firm associated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell continues to wind its way through the courts. None of those decisions has found much merit in West's legal argument.

Mention of the civil lower-court rulings that have gone against him gets West agitated, a condition he's no stranger to and one that sometimes seems to increase his argumentative skills.

What people don't realize, what the courts have completely and deliberately ignored and the news media failed to adequately explain, he says, is that state law already allows same-sex marriage. State law makes no mention of marriage being a pact between a man and a woman, no matter what state officials, politicians or judges say.

"It's just not there," he says.

But what really gets West going is how often and how glibly judges, politicians and middle-of-the-road opponents of gay marriage say the issue can't and shouldn't be resolved in the courts. It's a legislative issue, they say, and no one in the state Legislature has picked up that ball.

"The silence has been deafening," he says.

Even with the whole world watching, even if the air that day was as full of promises as the day's sunshine, the gay marriage ceremonies couldn't guarantee happy endings. The first gay couple married by West, Billiam van Roestenberg and Jeffrey McGowan, have separated. At least one other couple has reportedly also separated.

Jay Blotcher and Brook Garrett were the second male couple to have their relationship solemnized that day. They're still together. They recently bought a house.

But what heterosexual couples take for granted, Blotcher and Garrett can't assume. Health-care proxies, for example, are needed to assure each other hospital visitation rights if one of them should become ill.

"My husband and I have no rights," Blotcher says. "We're second-class citizens."

That's what the gay rights struggle boils down to for Blotcher - the fight to escape second-class citizenship.

On that front, he says, it's been a roller coaster ride. On the national level, Republicans are promising to pursue the so-called "Marriage Protection Amendment." States like West Virginia are introducing new anti-gay laws. Even New York City has been unable to pass legislation prohibiting the city from doing business with businesses that discriminate against gays.

Amid all that bad news, Blotcher sardonically notes that the movie with the most Oscar nominations concerns the love affair of two cowboys.

On the positive side, Blotcher sees two developments with promise: the New Paltz Gay Pride March and the gay and lesbian community's efforts to establish a community center.

The march, he says, is a direct result of the wedding ceremonies; both moves represent an effort to "keep the momentum going."

You've got to remember the weddings didn't create a gay community, but they helped keep the spark alive, helped keep the political dimension alive, which is crucial if we're ever going to overcome being second-class citizens."