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Editorial: NM high court resolves fight over gay marriage

On Dec. 19, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously ruled the state constitution protects the right of people of the same gender to marry. The court also ruled that state laws that opponents had interpreted as prohibiting same-sex marriage violated the state constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, which in the court’s view means government can’t treat people differently based on sexual orientation.

The landmark decision was an early holiday gift for same-sex couples waiting for a blessing of their commitment to marry or cementing the legality of those who already had done so in eight New Mexico counties after the Doña Ana County Clerk started issuing licenses in August, and subsequent rulings by state District Judges Sarah Singleton in Santa Fe and Alan Malott in Albuquerque. Now it is legal in all New Mexico counties.

The high court justices in Santa Fe, unlike those in most other states, were careful to make a clear distinction that religious organizations cannot be forced to perform same-sex marriages if the church does not recognize them.

The reality is that same-sex marriage is here to stay. In the past few years, it has gained wide support, reflecting a changing U.S. society that is more tolerant of different lifestyle choices and a growing consensus that allowing people of the same sex to marry is the right thing to do.

On Dec. 20, a federal judge in Utah overturned that state’s ban on same-sex marriage, ruling it violated gay couples’ constitutional rights.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, which had prevented legally married same-sex couples from receiving tax, health care and pension benefits that are available to heterosexual married couples.

If legalizing same-sex marriage had been put to New Mexico voters as a constitutional amendment – a route favored by Gov. Susana Martinez, who opposes such unions – it most likely would have passed. And that would have been the best route. A vote of the people circumvents the argument about the role of “activist judges.”

But courts decide controversies that come before them and that’s what they did in this case. The state high court’s ruling, affirming rulings by trial judges in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, balances the interests of gay people who want to marry and the religious interests of those who oppose it. That makes sense in predominantly Catholic New Mexico. Meanwhile, voters who think district judges and Supreme Court justices overstepped the role the courts should play can register their displeasure in the next judicial retention elections. That also is their right.

But when it comes to the Legislature, opponents who have vowed to continue the fight by seeking an amendment to the state constitution to define marriage as being between one man and one woman should start the new year by letting it go.

Their only chance of success is the unlikely scenario of a constitutional amendment clearing the Legislature, winning voter approval and surviving a legal challenge. Gay marriage opponents who continue this fight will succeed only in fanning the flames of hostility and resentment. And then what happens with all the same-sex marriages on the books?

The state Supreme Court has concluded that all people, no matter their sexual orientation, should be treated equally under the law when it comes to the right to marry. It’s time to recognize that and move on.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.