The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that it's unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples in New Mexico.
News of the ruling, which came after eight county clerks in the state had started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples earlier this year, spread quickly on social media and touched off celebrations among marriage-equality advocates.
New Mexico joins 16 other states in allowing gay marriage through legislation, court rules or voter referendums.
Justice Edward Chávez wrote in the court's opinion that although New Mexico's marriage statutes do not specifically prohibit same-gender marriages, existing state laws have had the effect of preventing same-gender couples from marrying and enjoying the rights and protections of civil marriage.
Such couples have been "subjected to a history of discrimination and violence," he wrote, and barring them from getting married violates the constitution's equal protection clause. New Mexico cannot deny them the right to marry, he said, "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."
The court rejected the argument that "responsible procreation and child-rearing" is an "overriding governmental interest," in part because procreation has never been a condition of marriage under New Mexico law, and state law recognizes the right of same-gender couples to raise children.
The court declined to strike down the state's marriage laws, however, because that would be inconsistent with the Legislature's commitment to "fostering stable families." However, Chávez wrote, all the rights, protections and responsibilities of marriage shall "apply equally to both same-gender and opposite-gender married couples."
Politicians supporting gay marriage immediately began to weigh in, expressing jubilation.
City Councilor Patti Bushee and former state Democratic Party chairman Javier Gonzales, two of the three candidates running in the Santa Fe mayor's race, praised the decision, as did two Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Alan Webber and Gary King, as well as Santa Fe Mayor David Coss and current state Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman.
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a longtime Republican who ran as a Libertarian in the 2012 presidential election, sent an email, saying, "This ruling is in line with our basic values as a state. In New Mexico, we don't turn our back on any member of our families."
Democrats in New Mexico's congressional delegation -- U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham -- issued a joint news release applauding the decision.
As the news spread across the country, actor George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu in the original Star Trek, tweeted, "Oh happy day! New Mexico makes 17!"
Gov. Susana Martinez, not a supporter of marriage equality, issued a statement calling for both sides of the issue to show each other respect.
"My personal views on this issue are well-known, and I'm confident that most New Mexicans believe, like I do, that it should have been settled by a vote of the people," Martinez said. "Instead, the Supreme Court stepped in and rendered their decision."
The governor said that while she's sure there will be "intense debate about this decision," she encouraged New Mexicans "to continue to respect one another in their discourse, as this is an important issue for many New Mexicans on both sides. As we move forward, I am hopeful that we will not be divided, as we must come together to tackle very pressing issues, like reforming education and growing our economy, in the weeks and months ahead."
Asked for comment about the decision, a spokesman for the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is opposed to same-sex marriage, pointed to a brief statement on the website of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
"The bishops of New Mexico recognize the New Mexico Supreme Court as the interpreter of the State Constitution. The Catholic Church respects and loves the gay and lesbian members of our community. We will continue to promote Catholic teaching of the Biblical definition of marriage to be that of one man and one woman."
State Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, a leading legislative opponent of same-sex marriage, said in a statement that he's disappointed by the court ruling. But, he added, "If they are saying [prohibiting gay marriage] is unconstitutional, we need to make it constitutional."
Sharer said he plans to introduce a constitutional amendment to reverse the court's ruling. He had planned to prefile a proposed amendment Thursday, but when the court's decision came down, he decided to redraft it to make sure it conformed with points made by the high court.
On the national level, Brian Brown, president of National Organization for Marriage, issued a statement saying,"Once again, activists judges have thrown out the historic legal understanding of marriage in New Mexico. This is a continuation of a very dangerous rush towards silencing people of faith who simply believe marriage to be the union of one man and one woman."
After oral arguments in the Supreme Court last October, Sharer had predicted the court would rule in favor of same-sex marriage but said he would seek legislation to specifically outlaw it.
Legislative opponents of gay marriage have tried for more than a decade to pass laws or constitutional amendments to prohibit homosexuals from marrying each other. Normally, such bills get stuck in the legislative committee process. With Democrats controlling the Legislature, there's not much to suggest that the result would be any different in the upcoming session.
Meanwhile, county clerks who haven't already been issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples began preparing to do so.
Sandoval County Clerk Eileen Garbagni said Thursday that her office will begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples at 9 a.m. Friday, Dec. 20. "We've got the paperwork ready," she said. Katrina Salazar, who works at the Rio Arriba County Clerk's Office in Tierra Amarilla, said because of the ruling, her office will now begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. "That's the law," she said.
The decision could have significant benefits for married gay people who are eligible for Social Security benefits or will be eligible soon.
"As the rules are currently written, state recognition of a marriage is key to the issue of Social Security retirement benefits and survivor benefits," said Brad Wright, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "The difference can be literally life-changing for some, with hundreds of dollars more per month."
The website for the Social Security Administration says the agency is developing and implementing its policies in that area.
"If you are in, or are a surviving spouse of, a same-sex marriage or other legal same-sex relationship, even if you live in a state that prohibits same-sex marriage, we encourage you to apply right away," the website says.
The issue came to a head in New Mexico this year, when same-sex couples in Las Cruces, Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties asked county clerks to issue marriage licenses. At first the clerks declined, but then judicial filings cleared the way for same-sex licenses in some counties but not others.
The case was accepted by the five-member court when all 33 county clerks across the state asked for clarity on the laws.
(c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.
Visit The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) at www.santafenewmexican.com
Original headline: New Mexico becomes 17th state to allow gay marriage
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