NEW YORK -- The fight over gay marriages reached the nation's largest city yesterday as about three dozen same-sex couples asked for licenses and were turned down. One applicant warned, "This isn't going away."
Couples in a New York suburb were also rejected, but across the country in Portland, Ore., a line of at least 100 hopefuls snaked around a building as Multnomah County handed out licenses to gay couples for a second day.
"This isn't a matter of sacred and religious issues. It's a civil issue," said Nelson Jones, 74, who came out to support the Oregon couples and hoped to seek his own license there next week.
It is not clear how long the licenses will be available. Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski has warned that the marriages may not be legal and requested a legal opinion from Oregon's attorney general.
New York's attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, said in an opinion Wednesday that his state's laws prohibit same-sex marriages.
Spitzer said local clerks should not issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and officials like Mayor Jason West of New Paltz "should not solemnize same-sex wedding ceremonies."
Spitzer said New York's law contains references to "bride and groom" and "husband and wife." He cited case law that found "marriage is and always has been a contract between a man and a woman."
However, Spitzer also said court precedent recognizes gay marriages and civil unions performed outside New York and in compliance with laws in that state or country.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has promised to enforce the law. Still, gay couples began lining up outside the New York City clerk's office two hours before it opened. First in line were Mara Gottlieb, 33, and Camille Gonzalez, 38, accompanied by Gottlieb's mother and their rabbi.
They, like those who followed, were handed a 50-page rejection letter that included the state and city's legal opinions and offered information about domestic partnership options.
"We're disappointed, but we think it's important for people to come here," said Gottlieb, who wore a tiara-like white band in her hair. "We want the politicians to know that this isn't going away."
About 300 gay and lesbian demonstrators held signs and chanted: "It's about equality!"
About 30 miles to the north, Mayor John Shields o Nyack met yesterday with same-sex couples and then accompanied them to the Orangetown clerk's office to apply for marriage licenses. The mayor and his partner, Bob Streams, went first, and the town clerk handed them a statement saying she is not authorized to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Eight other couples were also denied.
Shields, 60, was not surprised. "I think it's wonderful that a group came together to fight for the rights we deserve," he said.
Shields had planned to hold a wedding ceremony for same-sex couples like one held last week in the college town of New Paltz, but changed his mind after the Spitzer opinion.
West, the New Paltz mayor, faces 19 criminal counts and could face jail time after performing 25 same-sex ceremonies last Friday. He has pleaded not guilty and promised to conduct more marriages this weekend. A religious rights law firm asked a court yesterday to bar gay marriages in New York and will seek to remove West from office.
Mathew Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, said West "is taking his oath of office in a very cavalier manner. He calls this day the best day of his mayor career when he solemnized these unions. We're trying to make it his last days."
New York and Oregon are among 12 states without laws explicitly defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Mayors and county officials in California and New Mexico have also allowed gay marriages since the wedding march began Feb. 12 in San Francisco.