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N.Y. attorney general urges halt to same-sex marriages

New Paltz Mayor Jason West, 26, has been charged with 19 misdemeanor counts of marrying unlicensed couples.
New Paltz Mayor Jason West, 26, has been charged with 19 misdemeanor counts of marrying unlicensed couples.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- New York's attorney general urged local officials not to preside over same-sex marriages Wednesday, but he said the state's marriage law raises constitutional questions that the courts should decide.

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's opinion comes as one mayor faces misdemeanor charges for officiating at same-sex weddings and a second has said he will begin performing ceremonies Thursday.

In a statement, Spitzer said state laws governing marriage do not authorize cities or counties to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and he urged officials to stop solemnizing such unions.

But he said those provisions "raise important constitutional questions involving the equal protection of the laws" -- questions that the courts must decide.

Under state court precedent, he said, same-sex marriages and civil unions performed in other states should be recognized in New York.

"The issues underlying this opinion represent matters on which people of good faith have strongly held and widely divergent views," Spitzer said.

"Ultimately, these issues will be resolved in the courts, which have the overriding authority to interpret and apply the law," he said. "Until then, this analysis is being offered to help guide local officials in the performance of their duties."

The New York State Department of Health said last week the state's domestic relations law does not allow marriage between same-sex couples and that New York courts recognize only marriages between men and women.

The health department warned that any city clerk who issues a marriage license to same-sex couples and anyone who performs those marriages would violate state law.

New Paltz Mayor Jason West faces 19 misdemeanor counts of solemnizing unlicensed marriages after presiding over weddings of about 25 same-sex couples last week. West, 26, is scheduled to be arraigned in town court Wednesday.

New Paltz is a village in the Hudson River Valley, about 75 miles north of Manhattan.

Nyack Mayor John Shields said he will start marrying same-sex couples Thursday. Shields said about 100 couples have asked him to marry them, and he said he believes he has the authority to perform those unions.

"We live in a democratic society, and it's our constitutional right to have equal rights," Shields said.

Nyack is about 25 miles north of Manhattan.

Shields said he plans to marry his male partner in Massachusetts, where the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry beginning in May, kicking off a national debate over the issue.

CNN's Adaora Udoji contributed to this report.

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