Two quiet ministers at intersection of church and state

Posted: Friday, April 23, 2004

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. (AP) They speak softly. One quotes Camus from the pulpit, the other cites Tolkien. They are in their 60s. One is straight, the other gay.

Unitarian Universalist ministers Dawn Sangrey and Kay Greenleaf might seem like unlikely symbols in the fight over gay marriage. Yet criminal charges against the ministers for marrying gay couples in New Paltz last month place the two quiet women in the middle of the clamorous debate in a way they never quite intended.

''I said to myself, 'What are they going to do to two little old lady ministers?''' Greenleaf recalled.

The two women appear to be the first clergy nationwide to be prosecuted for marrying gay couples, according to advocates. They are accused of solemnizing marriages without a license the same charges brought against New Paltz Mayor Jason West for performing same-sex marriages.

Though critics of the closely watched case say it blurs the line between church and state, prosecutors say the pair crossed that line by invoking the civil powers to perform illegal marriages.

If convicted, each woman faces a fine of up to $500 or up to a year in jail.

Greenleaf and Sangrey met each other in 1997 while studying at the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. The two women, each who had approached the ministry later in life, hit it off.

''She and I were the only women of our generation there,'' Sangrey said. ''Everyone else was young enough to be our kids.''

Before her 2001 ordination, Sangrey, 62, taught English and writing in high school and community college in the Westchester County, where she and her husband live. She ministered in Englewood, N.J., before her assignment this year to a church in Mohegan Lake.

Greenleaf, 64, was ordained in 1997 after decades of teaching high school English in the Midwest and social work in Ohio. She ministered at four other churches before settling two years ago in Poughkeepsie, some 35 miles north of Sangrey's church.

Greenleaf and her partner, Pat Sullivan, were wed in a religious ceremony in 1989 and obtained a civil union in Vermont. But like a lot of gay people, she wanted the recognition and benefits conferred by a state-sanctioned marriage.

That prompted them to drive across the Hudson River to New Paltz on Feb. 27 to see if West would marry them. West, who attracted national attention for his rapid-fire series of same-sex weddings, could not fit them in that day. But Greenleaf told organizers she was a minister who would be happy to help out, if needed.

She got her chance a week later. West backed out of a second round of weddings amid criminal charges and a civil lawsuit. Greenleaf offered to officiate instead. She called Sangrey for help.

The pair performed weddings as a tag team March 6 under a tent for 13 lesbian couples. One of the first couples wed by Sangrey that day was Greenleaf and Sullivan.

Charges were filed nine days later.

Sangrey said she knew the risks West had already been charged. But she also saw the need for someone to make a public statement. She said she never thought about saying no.

''I'm kind of shy, actually, and pretty introverted,'' Sangrey said. ''I'm willing to do it, but it's not my favorite thing.''

Even Greenleaf, who has a personal stake in the battle for marriage rights, said her natural inclination is to let others speak up first.

''If there had been three or four other ministers ready to jump on board, it might not have happened,'' she said.

Though they face the same charges as West, the women have been overshadowed by the young, photogenic mayor. West's arraignment drew a college-heavy crowd who cheered, jostled and generally treated him like a rock star. The smaller group of supporters at the ministers' arraignment, many of them Unitarians, were likely to have gray hair and sing hymns.

Unitarian ministers have been performing religious marriages for same-sex couples for decades. What Greenleaf and Sangrey did differently was sign affidavits saying the couples were married under state law a move that has won them support among many Unitarians. During a recent service in Poughkeepsie, parishioners even applauded Greenleaf.

''We're all there to support her,'' said church member Dawn Rabidou, ''because we all feel she is right.''

A hearing in the ministers' criminal case is expected in June. Lawyer Robert Gottlieb, who is working for free, is preparing a motion to dismiss the charges.

Greenleaf jokes that she's getting her jail reading list ready, in the unlikely event of incarceration.

Same-sex weddings continue in New Paltz, but the two women have let other ministers fill in. Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams has not named any new defendants, opting to first see how the cases against the mayor and the ministers turn out.

Meanwhile, ministers in New York City and Albany have performed similar ceremonies without facing charges. For now, Sangrey and Greenleaf are alone. Greenleaf seems unfazed. In a recent sermon, she mentioned the gay marriage struggle and concluded with words that could apply to her legal case.

''We'll have to do it ourselves,'' she said. ''Carpe diem.''

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