State Supreme Court is unanimous on protection of rights
SANTA FE – New Mexico became the 17th state to legalize same-sex marriage Thursday with the state Supreme Court ruling that the rights of people wishing to marry are protected by the state Constitution, regardless of sexual orientation.
The ruling, coming nearly two months after the court heard arguments, capped a frenzied year of legal wrangling over the state’s definition of marriage. More than 1,400 gay and lesbian weddings took place as some county clerks decided to act in the absence of a final legal determination. That determination came Thursday.
“We hold that the state of New Mexico is constitutionally required to allow same-gender couples to marry and must extend to them the rights, protections, and responsibilities that derive from civil marriage under New Mexico law,” Justice Edward Chávez wrote in the unanimous, 31-page opinion by New Mexico’s highest court.
The court swept aside state laws that opponents said prohibited same-sex marriage in New Mexico, saying they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the state Constitution. That clause, adopted before statehood, means that government cannot treat people differently based on sexual orientation, the justices said.
“I don’t think you can overstate the importance of this opinion, particularly in the lives of thousands of same-sex couples in our state and the many thousands more to come in the future,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.
“At the crux of this decision is the guarantee that same-sex couples will be able to make a lifetime promise of love and commitment to each other in the presence of family, before their government and before the public without fear of discrimination,” Simonson said.
But one opponent said the battle isn’t over. State Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, said the Supreme Court overstepped its authority on the issue.
When the Legislature convenes in January, Sharer said he will propose an amendment to the state Constitution to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. If adopted by state legislators, it would go to voters for final approval – with a citizen vote also being the method favored by Gov. Susana Martinez.
“We shall continue the debate,” Sharer said. “Until the people accept it, it is not settled.”
In the case before the Supreme Court, the ACLU with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, represented a group of six same-sex couples who challenged the denial of marriage licenses by county clerks in New Mexico.
After the Supreme Court opinion was reported Thursday, supporters rallied at events in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces.
For Miriam Rand and Ona Lara Porter of Albuquerque, one of the original couples in the lawsuit and who have been together for 26 years and are raising a grandchild with cerebral palsy, the court decision marked the fulfillment of a dream long deferred.
“For most of our time together, we never considered it a possibility in our lifetime,” Rand said.
” ‘Thrilled’ is not a word that is sufficient at all,” Porter added.
The two were married shortly after a crucial, favorable ruling on same-sex marriage in August by state District Judge Alan Malott in Albuquerque.
In total eight New Mexico counties began issuing same-sex marriage licenses, either voluntarily or in response to the Malott ruling or other lower court orders. Those counties were Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Doña Ana, Valencia, Taos, San Miguel, Grant and Los Alamos.
Until Thursday, same-sex couples were unable to get marriage licenses in the state’s other 25 counties and GOP lawmakers had sued at least four county clerks for issuing licenses.
Looking for uniformity, the state’s 33 county clerks and the New Mexico Association of Counties intervened in the same-sex marriage lawsuit and asked the state Supreme Court to weigh in.
“Today’s decision puts all 33 county clerks on the same page regardless of their personal views,” said county clerks’ attorney Daniel Ivey-Soto, a Democratic state senator from Albuquerque.
San Juan County Clerk Debbie Holmes, who previously denied issuing marriage licenses until the Supreme Court or Legislature took action, said her office issued its first same-sex marriage license on Thursday based on the court ruling.
“It felt like, to me, the law had not changed until a court or the Legislature makes that decision for me,” Holmes said. “… Now, I will do it, and I have.”
Gov. Martinez, a Republican, has voiced opposition to same-sex marriage and has said the issue should go to a citizen vote.
“I’m confident that most New Mexicans believe, like I do, that it should have been settled by a vote of the people,” Martinez said Thursday. “Instead, the Supreme Court stepped in and rendered their decision. While there will surely be intense debate about this decision moving forward, I encourage New Mexicans to continue to respect one another on their discourse, as this is an important issue for many New Mexicans on both sides.”
Preparing for change
The court wrote that gay marriage opponents failed to show evidence that banning same-sex marriage was in the government’s interest.
“Procreation has never been a condition of marriage under New Mexico law, as evidenced by the fact that the aged, the infertile and those who choose not to have children are not precluded from marrying,” Chávez wrote. “In addition, New Mexico law recognizes the right of same-gender couples to raise children.”
However, the decision also stipulated that clergy members who do not agree with same-sex marriage will not be required to perform marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples.
The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, a influential force in a heavily Catholic state, said in a statement that the church will not alter its teachings in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
“The bishops of New Mexico recognize the New Mexico Supreme Court as the interpreter of the state Constitution,” the bishops said. “The Catholic Church respects and loves the gay and lesbian members of our community. We will continue to promote Catholic teaching of the biblical definition of marriage to be that of one man and one woman.”
Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver said Thursday that the state’s county clerks were planning to hold a telephone conference call today to discuss the creation of a uniform, gender-neutral marriage application form. The form is required by the Supreme Court’s ruling.