Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- New Mexico, the only state without a law specifically allowing or prohibiting gay marriage, was barred by its supreme court from denying same-sex couples the right to marry.
New Mexico’s high court issued its decision today in response to a request by county clerks to clarify their obligations after a judge in August ordered the clerks of Bernalillo County and Santa Fe County to issue marriage licenses to couples without regard to their gender or sexual orientation. New Mexico joins 16 other states and the District of Columbia that have legalized gay marriage.
Prohibiting same-gender marriages is “not substantially related to the governmental interests advanced by the parties opposing same-gender marriage,” according to today’s ruling. The five justices said in their unanimous opinion that barring individuals from marrying and depriving them of the rights, protections, and responsibilities of civil marriage solely because of their sexual orientation violates the equal protection clause of the New Mexico Constitution.
“We hold that the State of New Mexico is constitutionally required to allow same-gender couples to marry and must extend to them the rights, protections, and responsibilities that derive from civil marriage under New Mexico law,” according to the ruling.
Jim Campbell, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that was a party in the case and opposes same-sex marriage, said today’s ruling prevents New Mexicans from deciding the future of marriage through the democratic process.
“The government’s purpose for recognizing marriage is to bring together one man and one woman as husband and wife to be a father and a mother to any children their union produces,” he said in an e-mail statement. “The New Mexico Supreme Court ignored that time-tested understanding of marriage and replaced it with the recently conceived notion that marriage means special government recognition for close relationships.”
Judge Alan Malott in Albuquerque ruled in August that denying gay couples the right to marry violates the New Mexico constitution. State rules require couples wishing to marry to obtain a license and doesn’t define or limit the definition of “couples” to heterosexual, he said.
A group of New Mexico lawmakers filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that the state’s marriage statutes permit marriage only between a man and a woman.
“The intent of the legislature, a comprehensive reading of all the statutes addressing marriage, this court’s treatment of marriage, the consensus of past and present New Mexico attorneys general, and an unbroken line of precedents from other jurisdictions all confirm that the marriage statutes in this state permit marriage only between one man and one woman,” the lawmakers said in their filing.
The state high court ordered clerks who process marriage licenses to use gender-neutral language “in identifying the applicants and spouses.”
Thalia Zepatos, a spokeswoman for Freedom to Marry, called on state officials to quickly implement today’s decision “prevent any further delay or ambiguity in marriage law in the state.”
“The New Mexico Supreme Court did the right thing today by affirming fairness, freedom, and respect for same-sex couples who hope to share in the joy of marriage,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
New Mexico, whose voters chose a Republican governor in 2010 and President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the past two presidential elections, is the only U.S. state that has no law related to same-sex marriage or civil unions. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit this year on behalf of gay couples who were denied marriage licenses.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples legally married in states that allowed it. The court also reinstated a federal judge’s order allowing gay marriages in California, ruling that opponents of gay marriage didn’t have legal standing to defend a voter-approved ban on same-sex weddings.
The case is State of New Mexico v. Malott, 34,306, Supreme Court for the State of New Mexico (Santa Fe).
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