updated 6/10/2004 4:06:27 PM ET 2004-06-10T20:06:27

A town judge on Thursday dismissed criminal charges against New Paltz Mayor Jason West for marrying gay couples earlier this year.

Barring an appeal, the ruling spares West the possibility of fines or jail time for marrying more than two dozen same-sex couples on Feb. 27. West drew the Hudson Valley village of New Paltz into the growing national debate on same-sex unions.

West and his lawyer said Thursday's decision is a major victory for gay rights. Attorney Joshua Rosenkranz said it was the first time a New York court has ruled that same-sex couples have the same rights as heterosexual couples.

West remains permanently barred from marrying same-sex couples under an order issued earlier this week by a separate judge hearing a civil case against the 27-year-old mayor.

In that case, Ulster County Supreme Court Justice Michael Kavanagh barred West, but his ruling did not address the constitutionality of gay marriage.

“The mayor by his office is obligated to comply with the law and abide by it,” Kavanagh wrote. “A public officer may not question the constitutionality of a statute and refuse to comply with its provisions.”

West maintained Monday that he was legally obligated to marry same-sex couples.

“Courts have previously held that there are exceptions to when mayors must obey all the laws, specifically when the law violates the constitution,” West said. “I cannot tell these couples I can’t marry them and uphold my oath of office.”

The mayor’s view that same-sex marriages are valid under state law puts him at odds with the opinion of many New York officials, including Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Gov. George Pataki.

Gay marriages began in Massachusetts on May 17 after that state’s highest court ruled it was unconstitutional to deny licenses to same-sex couples.

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