NEW YORK -- Gay marriage has stirred up a passionate whirlwind of moral convictions, religious beliefs, and politics, sweeping the divisive question onto the desks of state attorneys general, the top law enforcers in each state. As the issues flare up in New York, California, New Mexico, and Oregon, attorneys general are coming down, gingerly at times, against attempts to marry people of the same sex -- even as some elected officials continue to advocate for gay rights. The law, the attorneys general have said, is the law, and it does not allow gay marriages.
Some of the attorneys general have ruled reluctantly, noting that they disagree with current law. Others have been swift. "I wrestled with it for about an hour," Attorney General Patricia Madrid of New Mexico said. "The law itself precludes it." She ordered a county clerk to stop issuing marriage licenses to couples of the same sex.
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer of New York, viewed as a likely candidate for governor, said that the law is clear and that same-sex marriages would violate it. But he added that his heart is with those on the other side.
"I personally would like to see the law changed, but must respect the law as it now stands," Spitzer said. He noted that the local district attorney has the authority to prosecute.
Attorney General Bill Lockyer of California determined that same-sex marriages violate state law and has asked the state Supreme Court to invalidate such marriages performed in San Francisco. But his own view, he said, is close to Spitzer's.
The decisions so far -- all by Democrats -- are only one step amid pending court decisions, ongoing attempts in several states to amend their constitutions to ban gay marriages, and President Bush's effort to write a ban into the US Constitution.
Meanwhile, many longtime opponents of gay marriage, even as they issue dire warnings, are welcoming the furor over same-sex marriage as an opportunity to expand the audience for their views about homosexuality.
Activists in this camp -- clergy, conservative lobbyists, and those who say they moved away from homosexuality via prayer or therapy -- have been dismayed by gay rights advances in recent years. They also see new opportunities for their cause if, as polls have indicated, a majority of Americans oppose the spreading push for gay marriage.
"People are taking us more seriously," said Joseph Nicolosi, a leading proponent of the contested concept that homosexuality is a disorder treatable by therapy.
"People were just hoping this issue would go away, and now they're forced to think about it and make some evaluation of what homosexuality is," he said. His organization, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, reported an increase in inquiries and donations as the marriage debate escalates.
San Francisco's mayor began issuing marriage licenses, so did the mayor in upstate New Paltz, N.Y., as well as officials in Oregon's Multnomah County and a clerk in New Mexico's Sandoval County. Seattle's mayor said yesterday the city will begin recognizing the marriages of gay employees who tie the knot elsewhere, although it will not conduct its own same-sex weddings.
Mayor Greg Nickels was to sign an executive order yesterday giving same-sex spouses of city employees all the benefits of heterosexual spouses, including health insurance. He also planned to send a proposal to the City Council to protect the rights of same-sex married couples in Seattle. "The basic message is one of fairness, and that is that people who are willing to make a commitment to one another, who love one another, and who are willing to take on the responsibilities of marriage ought to be able to, regardless of their gender," Nickels said.
Nickels said he cannot follow the lead of mayors in San Francisco and New Paltz, N.Y., by allowing same-sex weddings because counties, not cities, have the authority to issue marriage licenses in Washington.
King County Executive Ron Sims, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said the law prevents him from issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Washington is one of 38 states that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Attorney General Henry McMasters, a South Carolina Republican, questioned how public officials knowingly break the law they swore to uphold, even if they disagreed with it.
As of Friday, Phoenix-area heterosexual couples who plan to marry now must appear in person to obtain a marriage license because officials halted a mail-in program amid the controversy over same-sex marriages.
The change was made after Maricopa County officials received a mail-in request for a license that suggested the couple could be of the same sex, said Cari Gerchick, spokeswoman for the Superior Court clerk's office. Arizona law outlaws same-sex marriages.