District Attorney Donald Williams said gay marriage laws make no distinction between public officials and members of the clergy who preside over wedding ceremonies.
Unitarian Universalist ministers Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey were charged with multiple counts of solemnizing a marriage without a license, the same charges leveled against New Paltz Mayor Jason West, who last month drew the state into the widening national debate over same-sex unions.
The charges carry a fine of $25 to $500 or up to two years in jail. "As far as I know that's unprecedented,'' said Mark Shields a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay rights group. "It's ridiculous that prosecutors would spend their time charging anyone with a crime who is simply trying to unite two people with basic rights and protections.''
Since West joined San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom as the only elected officials to marry gay couples, the issue has spread rapidly across the country. Courts, legislatures and elected officials are wrestling with what supporters say is a matter of civil rights and opponents call an attack on the time-honored institution of marriage.
Greenleaf, who acknowledged performing the ceremonies in New Paltz knowing the couples did not have licenses, said she signed an affidavit for the couples and considers the ceremonies civil.
Williams said he decided to press charges because the marriages were "drastically different'' from religious ceremonies because Greenleaf and Sangrey publicly said they considered them civil. Some Unitarian ministers, Greenleaf included, have been performing ceremonies for gay couples since before the issue entered the national debate.
"It is not our intention to interfere with anyone's right to express their religious beliefs, including the right of members of the clergy to perform ceremonies where couples are united solely in the eyes of the church or any other faith,'' Williams said.
Williams had said before Monday's charges were announced that it would be more difficult considering charges against clergy because the clergy had not sworn to uphold the law.
He said his decision to press charges was influenced by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's opinion that gay marriage is illegal in New York and by the injunction issued by a state supreme court justice against West.
The ministers performed the weddings March 6.
On Saturday, Greenleaf and Sangrey were joined by a third minister, the Rev. Marion Visel, in performing 25 more ceremonies, which went off without protests or arrests. It could not immediately be learned if more charges would be brought.
The ministers' lawyer, Robert Gottlieb, was unaware of the charges when contacted by The Associated Press and declined comment.
Unitarian Universalists have roots in a movement that rejected Puritan orthodoxy in New England, and they support a free search for spiritual truth. Atheists and pagans are a significant part of their membership.
Unitarians have backed gay rights since 1970, and not only endorse same-sex unions, but some churches also offer the couples premarital counseling. The denomination counts nearly 215,000 people as members nationwide, according to the 2004 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.
West married 25 gay and lesbian couples Feb. 27 in a highly publicized marathon ceremony. West is now under a court order temporarily halting the weddings.
In Oregon, Multnomah County commissioners decided Monday that they will continue to issue gay marriage licenses despite legal objections from the state. About 2,000 gay couples from around the nation have flocked to Portland to be married since a March 3 county review of state law concluded that denying such applications would be unconstitutional.
Portland remains the only major city in the United States where gay couples can get married.