Jennifer Smits, 25, and Dana Wegener, 27, live in the small Hudson Valley town of New Paltz. Sitting 75 miles north of New York City, it was founded in 1677 by French refugees fleeing Germany for religious freedom. It is known as a college town, home to one of the State University of New York campuses. Today, it will also become known as the town that allowed Smits and Wegener to get married.
New Paltz's 26-year-old mayor, Jason West, said on Thursday he would perform marriage ceremonies for up to a dozen same-sex couples on Friday (February 27).
"We feel honored and blessed to be here today. We heard about it on the news last night and came right down to the mayor's office in our PJs. We spoke to the mayor and put our names on the waiting list, because we knew there would be a lot of press," Smits said.
A lot of press indeed. Hundreds of cameras and reporters are descending on New Paltz on Friday as gay marriages have become a hot-button issue in the presidential election. President Bush spurred much debate this week when he pushed for a constitutional amendment that would restrict marriage to two people of the opposite sex but leave open the possibility that states could allow civil unions (see "Gay Marriage Issue As Complicated As It Is Controversial").
"I was really disappointed when I heard him speak. Because we live in America," said Smits, who is an instructor at one of the colleges in New Paltz. "We depend on the Constitution to give us equal rights and not segregate. I think his speech really took America a step backwards."
Smits likens all the news articles she's read on the subject to segregation between blacks and whites in the South. "We shouldn't be discriminated against because of our sexual preference."
Mayor West said state law on domestic marriages is gender-neutral and that the state constitution, which he is obligated to uphold, requires equal protection under the law. It is the same rationale that Mayor Gavin Newsom used in granting more than 3,200 marriage licenses in San Francisco by the end of last week.
"[Jason West] has been such a great mayor," Smits said. "It's one more step in the right direction for humanity. I'm so glad he's stepping up to the plate."
Jeremiah Horrigan, a reporter for the Middletown Times Herald-Record, said he felt it was a"good bet" that West would continue performing marriage ceremonies, even if he was breaking the law.
"He said so at the beginning of today's event - that the District Attorney could do what he wanted," said Horrigan. "He's convinced he's right."
In addition to the hordes of reporters, the Christian Coalition is also making its presence known outside the mayor's office. Banners aplenty can be seen on the streets of New Paltz. Many say "God Bless You." Smits did note that she didn't see any slanderous remarks on the signs.
Smits and Wegener put down roots in New Paltz because the town was supportive of their nontraditional relationship. After eight years together, they are glad to be getting married. "We went out to breakfast in town this morning. And we were being congratulated, more so than being attacked," Smits said.
"It's exciting. It's inspiring. We hope it inspires the U.S. to follow suit," she added.
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