February 20, 2004
Same-Sex Couples Line Up in Sandoval County To Get Married
By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press
BERNALILLO Gay and lesbian couples lined up to tie the knot Friday after the Sandoval County clerk agreed to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Roughly 15 couples had been granted licenses by late morning, the Sandoval County clerk's office said. A sign-up list for applications had grown to 38 couples, with some waiting in line for in the hall outside the clerk's office inside a courthouse.
Outside court, two reverends conducted impromptu marriage ceremonies.
Meanwhile, two state senators and the county commissioner called for a quick opinion from the attorney general on whether the licenses were legal.
Among the first to get their license were two women who got married in a brief ceremony in front of the courthouse.
"When we heard the news this morning, we knew we couldn't wait. We had to come down here," Jenifer Albright said after she and Anne Schultz, 34, both of Albuquerque, exchanged vows in front of the courthouse.
James Walker and Michael Palmer took extended lunch breaks from work for a moment they said they'd waited 26 years for. The men were married in Toronto last year, but that didn't give them rights in the United States.
Walker said a marriage certificate from Sandoval County "would give us a lot of rights and benefits that have been denied us as a couple, including the rights associated with property ownership and the rights associated with medical decisions."
"Look at the sincerity here," pointing to a pair of women holding hands and exchanging vows, said the Rev. Pearl Gabaldon, who was conducting ceremonies.
County Clerk Victoria Dunlap, a Republican, said Thursday that she was unaware of any laws prohibiting licenses from being issued for same-sex couples. She said she sought an opinion from her county attorney after she got a call earlier this week from someone asking about same-sex ceremonies.
"This has nothing to do with politics or morals," she told the Albuquerque Journal. "If there are no legal grounds that say this should be prohibited, I can't withhold it . . . This office won't say no until shown it's not permissible."
She said County Attorney David Mathews told her that New Mexico law is unclear on the issue.
Republican state Sen. Steve Komadina, R-Corrales, criticized Dunlap's decision and urged state Attorney General Patricia Madrid to issue a prompt opinion. Sandoval County Commission Chairman Daymon Ely also sought a legal opinion.
A spokeswoman for Madrid said an opinion could be issued next week.
"I feel badly that action was taken before an answer was obtained," Komadina said. "That was very irresponsible and will cause heartache to people on all sides of the question."
Gov. Bill Richarson, a prominent Democrat who has served as United Nations ambassador and who has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate this year, said he was opposed to same-sex marriage.
"The governor has always been a champion for human rights. He supports equal rights and opposed all forms of discrimination. However, he is opposed to same sex marriage," said Marsha Catron, a Richardson spokeswoman."
The clerk's decision came as a surprise to Linda Siegle, a lobbyist representing the Coalition for Equality in New Mexico, a gay rights group.
Siegle said she assumes Dunlap was trying to force a decision on gay marriage in New Mexico.
"It's not our primary issue right now but it has to become one of our primary issues," Siegle said.
Melinda Foster, a clerk's administrative assistant, said people have been calling from across New Mexico, interested in filing. Dunlap was not immediately available for comment Friday.
To get an application, would-be married couples had to show up with a photo ID, social security card and $25 to receive an application. In getting their stamped licenses, they were handed pink "newlywed bags" with coupons and other items.
On Thursday, Mathews said he was concerned that refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples could open the county to legal liability.
State law defines marriage as a civil contract between contracting parties but it does not mention gender. The only law that mentions gender is a 1961 statute that created the form used for marriage licenses and which asks for information about the male and female applicants.
But the Equal Rights Act of 1973 outlaws discrimination based on sex, Mathews said.
Dunlap said she would issue marriage licenses to same-sex applicants until Sandoval County receives a legal opinion from the attorney general.
Mathews said he did not want Sandoval County to become a test case for same-sex marriage in New Mexico and that the county does not have a position on the issue.
"This is a statewide issue, and we need some guidance," he said.
Clerks in nearby Santa Fe and Bernalillo County said they would not issue same-sex marriage licenses.
"My position is I took an oath to uphold the law, not change the law," said Rebecca Bustamante, Santa Fe County clerk. "I wouldn't do it because I just don't think I can."
Mary Herrera, Bernalillo County clerk, aid she has no plans to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She cited the 1961 law.
San Francisco has sanctioned about 3,000 gay unions since it began defying a California law banning same-sex marriages.
Even before the San Francisco weddings, gay marriage had emerged as a volatile election-year topic, largely because of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's ruling last year that the state must start recognizing gay marriages as of May 17.