Seattle to recognize gay marriages

Tuesday, March 9, 2004

SEATTLE -- This left-leaning city joined the gay marriage fight Monday, with the mayor announcing that city hall will recognize unions of gay city employees who tie the knot elsewhere and six same-sex couples suing for the right to wed.

Mayor Greg Nickels issued an executive order requiring the city to recognize same-sex marriages by municipal employees.

"Seattle has often been in the forefront of protecting all its citizens regardless of sexual orientation," Nickels said at a news conference. He also proposed an ordinance to extend protections for gay married couples throughout the city.

Meanwhile, six same-sex couples who applied for marriage licenses at the King County Administration Building were rejected because of a state law that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

But King County administrator Ron Sims invited the couples to sue him and the county, explaining that he supported the couples' efforts but had no choice but to uphold the law.

The couples applauded Sims' remarks, then filed their complaint, which argues that the law violates the Washington Constitution's equal-protection clause.

Meanwhile, the city of Asbury Park, N.J. started issuing wedding licenses to same-sex couples, with the first couple married in city hall on Monday. City clerk Dawn Tomek made the announcement; it was not immediately clear if she had acted alone.

"As a show of support to the city's gay community and the gay community nationwide, the City of Asbury Park has determined that it will commence the issuance of licenses to same-sex couples and the solemnization of marriage between same-sex couples, immediately, as a matter of fundamental civil and Constitutional rights," Tomek said in a statement.

Nickels said he lacks the legal authority to issue same-sex marriage licenses or certificates like mayors in San Francisco and New Paltz, N.Y., have done.

More than 3,600 same-sex marriages have been performed in San Francisco in the last three weeks, and hundreds of gay couples were granted wedding licenses last week in Portland, Ore. The marriages are being challenged in court.

New Paltz Mayor Jason West faces possible jail time for officiating at same-sex weddings for couples who lacked a license. On Monday, the prosecutor who charged him said he was also considering charges against two ministers who stepped in to marry gay couples in New Paltz.

Although Unitarian Universalist ministers have been performing same-sex ceremonies for decades, the Rev. Kay Greenleaf said she signed an affidavit for the couples and considers the ceremonies civil. Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams said it would take days to determine whether the ministers could face charges similar to those filed against West.

Seattle has offered domestic partnership benefits to its employees since 1989, but that process requires extensive paperwork -- a step same-sex couples would be able to skip under Nickels' executive order.

Nickels also said he will ask the City Council to protect gay married couples throughout the city from discrimination in employment and housing. If the council approves the ordinance, it also would require contractors doing business with the city to recognize gay marriages among their own employees.

Rick Forcier, head of the state Christian Coalition and a critic of extending marriage licenses to gay couples, called the mayor's plan a clear violation of state law.

"What he's about to do is anarchy -- taking the law into his own hands," Forcier said. "People cannot be recognized as married in one jurisdiction and not in another."

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