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Sunday, February 20, 2005
N.M. Gay Marriage Debate Continues
By Joshua Akers
Journal Staff Writer
A year ago today, Sandoval County Clerk Victoria Dunlap thrust New Mexico onto the national stage with her decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The 64 marriage licenses handed out that day helped fuel a national debate over gay marriage that ultimately spread into the 2004 presidential campaign.
The issue has resurfaced in Santa Fe this month with lawmakers again debating whether marriage in New Mexico should be limited to the union between a man and a woman.
For longtime partners Mary Houdek and Norma Vasquez, Feb. 20, 2004, was historic and their wedding day.
They were the first couple to arrive at the Sandoval County Courthouse, and the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license from the state of New Mexico.
Houdek and Vasquez had already been together for 17 years.
"Being married is such a sweet, sweet feeling," Vasquez said last week. "It's been 18 years and the last year has just been exceptional."
Over dinner at the Range Cafe in Bernalillo, Houdek and Vasquez said the marriage has given them a sense they were protected as a family.
"It's a peaceful feeling," Houdek said. "Everything we've been working on together for 18 years is protected."
Opponents feel just as strongly.
Same-sex marriage "goes at the very moral fiber of our nation," former Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley said at a news conference last Feb. 20.
"This particular debate ... affects family structure, it affects our children, our everyday lives."
Day to remember
On Feb. 20, the Sandoval County Courthouse was anything but peaceful.
It was chaos as the county's deputy clerks struggled to keep up with an ever-growing line of couples waiting outside its door.
Word had spread fast after a Journal story that morning reported that Dunlap would issue same-sex licenses.
Republican County Clerk Dunlap provided licenses for eight hours.
Then she instructed her staff to stop after state Attorney General Patricia Madrid issued an interpretation that New Mexico law allowed marriages only between members of the opposite sex.
While Dunlap stopped issuing licenses, she couldn't stop the legal and political fallout from her decision to allow licenses even for such a short period.
Her actions were swiftly condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike, from county commissioners and state lawmakers to Gov. Bill Richardson and President Bush.
Many felt it was not a decision a county clerk should make but that it should be made at the state level.
The Republican clerk was sued by the state and served the final nine months of her term under a temporary restraining order.
The validity of the marriage licenses issued that day remains uncertain.
In her advisory letter, Madrid said in her opinion the licenses were invalid.
But their validity has not been taken to court by any of the couples or those opposing same-sex marriage.
The state's lawsuit against Dunlap did not address that issue.
Dunlap said she issued the licenses because New Mexico law didn't prevent it.
Sandoval County attorney David Mathews had advised her the county could be liable if it didn't issue licenses to same-sex couples.
At the same time, he recommended that Dunlap seek an opinion from Madrid before deciding whether to issue the licenses.
Dunlap decided not to wait and began issuing the licenses.
Her decision attracted the attention of the nation, which had been following the marriage of thousands of same-sex couples in San Francisco.
The clerk's office fielded calls from CNN, national networks and media from Japan and England.
That afternoon, Madrid issued an advisory letter that said: "Until the laws are changed through the legislative process or declared unconstitutional by the judicial process, the statutes limit marriage in New Mexico to a man and a woman." Dunlap abided by the opinion and stopped issuing the licenses.
New Mexico law uses gender-neutral terms like "couple" and "contracting parties" when describing marriage. However, the forms used by clerks refer to male applicant and female applicant.
A month later, Madrid filed a lawsuit against Dunlap after the clerk said she would issue licenses again.
Dunlap backed down after she was slapped with a temporary restraining order preventing her from issuing same-sex licenses.
The order was never lifted.
The AG and the clerk battled it out in court over the next few months.
Each side took its case to the state Supreme Court looking for a favorable ruling. The high court sent the case back to district court both times.
In July, District Judge Louis P. McDonald had Madrid and Dunlap in mediation and it appeared in November a settlement was close.
But the settlement never materialized.
Dunlap's term as clerk officially ended Jan. 1.
Two days later, the AG petitioned to substitute new County Clerk Sally Padilla as the defendant and the case was dismissed.
Padilla made it clear while campaigning for clerk that she would not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
But for the couples who were married that day and for those at the back of the line, the fight isn't over.
Houdek and Vasquez believe there is no question their license is valid, but they said it has yet to be tested.
"These marriages are legal and binding," Vasquez said. "But we don't know if it will be recognized until we test it."
The test could come in the form of a challenge over health issues or death benefits or other rights extended to married couples.
Married couples, for instance, are entitled to make medical decisions for each other if a spouse is incapacitated.
Many same-sex couples in committed relationships use a number of legal agreements, such as living wills, medical directives and joint mortgages, to protect their financial lives together as a couple.
But in some cases, those agreements can be overridden in court by immediate family members.
With lawyers and fees, those agreements can become very expensive compared with a $25 marriage license, Vasquez said.
Houdek and Vasquez said marriage automatically gives them those rights.
Marriage also gives them many rights they can't currently access, like retirement benefits and a say in the medical care given a spouse.
Houdek and Vasquez say being married has allowed their co-workers a better understanding of their relationship.
"It used to be just 'say hi to Norma,' '' Houdek said. "They (her colleagues) started talking more about their relationship. It was wonderful. They could identify."
Vasquez said it allowed others to have a sense of their commitment to each other.
"They got to celebrate our relationship with us," Vasquez said. "Marriage is a community celebration, communities gather to celebrate the commitment."
Houdek and Vasquez are actively pursuing the right for other same-sex couples to marry.
They recently spoke at a rally at the Roundhouse on Valentine's Day.
"The important thing is our marriage hasn't hurt any other marriage," Vasquez said.
Houdek said Dunlap's decision to issue licenses brought the issue to the forefront.
"This is about freedom and equality for all," Houdek said. "I will fight for this until the day that I die."