SANTA FE, N.M. — Last week’s New Mexico Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage legal specified that religious institutions cannot be forced to marry gay and lesbian couples – language that is different from court rulings in other states, legal experts said.
In other states where courts have backed same-sex marriage with little mention of churches’ constitutional rights, the specified protection of free worship is assumed, said Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, a family law professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law.
“I think it’s a given myself, and I think most people who’ve taken a First Amendment class would think it’s a given that the state is not going to interfere with religion,” Sedillo Lopez said.
But the New Mexico Supreme Court took a more sensitive approach to the legalization of same-sex civil marriage, likely with the state’s large Catholic population in mind, Sedillo Lopez said.
“I think it’s good of the court to express itself clearly and educate the public about the separation,” Sedillo Lopez said.
“The United States takes great pride in the separation between church and state,” the professor said. “You don’t want to think you live in a jurisdiction where the government is going to tell churches how to handle their doctrine. Leave religion to the religions, and leave equality and civil status to the state.”
The New Mexico court held in its 31-page opinion that the state’s denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples was an unconstitutional violation of the state’s equal protection clause.
But the court said that only what it called “a purely secular civil marriage” and the benefits the government provides to couples married by the state are constitutionally protected rights.
That means religious institutions cannot be forced to marry same-sex couples if the church chooses to not recognize same-sex marriage, the court said.
“No religious organization will have to change its policies to accommodate same-gender couples, and no religious clergy will be required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs,” the New Mexico court held in its unanimous opinion.
Regardless of the protections for religious leaders noted in the New Mexico court opinion, First Amendment protections of religious freedom would stand, said Brad Dacus, founder of the Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit religious legal defense organization based in California.
In addition to New Mexico, five of the 16 other states that have legalized same-sex marriage have done so through a decision of the courts, including California, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
But the New Mexico court’s decision to specify legal protections for church leaders who choose to not recognize same-sex marriage would help shield church groups from the threat of legal action by a same-sex couple seeking to have their wedding officiated by a New Mexico church, Dacus said.
“We believe the Constitution inherently provides that protection for religious institutions without a court explicitly saying so,” Dacus said. “That being said … I think they (the New Mexico justices) were probably very wise in doing so and wanted to prevent it as a subsequent case issue.”
Catholic Church leaders in New Mexico oppose same-sex marriage because it conflicts with the church definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. They had expected the high court to be specific about religious exemptions in its same-sex marriage decision, said Allen Sánchez, spokesman for the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“It was expected because the Supreme Court justices are, I think, very aware that there are many issues. It’s very complicated, especially when you’re looking at trying to protect everybody’s constitutional rights. You can’t have one right trumping another right,” Sánchez said.
“I think the justices consciously did not want to leave a loophole open,” he said.
Executive Director Peter Simonson of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico said the court’s sensitivity to religious groups underscored the argument of same-sex marriage supporters who said legalized marriage would not threaten religious beliefs.
The ACLU represented a group of same-sex couples who sought marriage licenses from the county clerks of Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties. That lawsuit led to the Supreme Court’s statewide legalization of same-sex “civil marriage” last week.
“We have tried to say over and over again that granting same-sex marriage poses no threat to people’s religious conscience,” Simonson said.
“It can’t be emphasized enough the importance of the court going out of its way to address the question of religious freedom,” Simonson said. “I’m not sure how frequently that happens in rulings of this nature.”