SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico became the latest state to legalize gay marriage Thursday as its highest court declared it is unconstitutional to deny a marriage license to gay and lesbian couples.
Justice Edward L. Chavez said in the ruling that none of New Mexico's marriage statutes specifically prohibits same-gender marriages, but the state's laws as a whole have prevented same-sex couples from marrying. The justices said gay and lesbian couples are a discrete group that has been subjected to a history of discrimination and violence.
"Accordingly, New Mexico may neither constitutionally deny same-gender couples the right to marry nor deprive them of the rights, protections and responsibilities of marriage laws, unless the proponents of the legislation — the opponents of same-gender marriage — prove that the discrimination caused by the legislation is 'substantially related to an important government interest,'" Chavez wrote.
The ruling was a victory for gay rights activists who had been unable to win a legislative resolution of the issue.
New Mexico joins 16 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing gay marriage either through legislation, court rulings or voter referendums.
Eight of the state's 33 counties started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in August when a county clerk in southern New Mexico independently decided to allow the unions.
County officials had asked the high court to clarify the law and establish a uniform state policy on gay marriage.
State statutes don't explicitly prohibit or authorize gay marriage. However, county clerks historically have denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples because the law includes a marriage license application with sections for male and female applicants.
The Democratic-controlled Legislature repeatedly has turned down proposals for domestic partnerships for same-sex couples and a constitutional amendment that would have allowed voters to decide whether to legalize gay marriage. Measures to ban same-sex marriage also have failed.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Lesbian Rights represented same-sex couples in the Supreme Court case. They contended gay marriage must be allowed because of constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law and a state constitutional prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The court ruling might not end the debate in the Legislature over gay marriage.
Sen. William Sharer, a Farmington Republican who opposes gay marriage, has said a constitutional amendment will be needed to resolve the issue regardless of the outcome of the court case.
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras in Albuquerque contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Original headline: New Mexico legalizes same-sex marriage
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