New Mexico became the 17th state to embrace same-sex marriages on Thursday following a unanimous ruling by the state high court declaring New Mexico’s marriage laws unconstitutional for limiting the institution to opposite-sex couples.
“Denying same-gender couples the right to marry and thus depriving them and their families of the rights, protections, and responsibilities of civil marriage violates the equality demanded by the Equal Protection Clause of the New Mexico Constitution,” Justice Edward Chavez wrote for the five-member court.
The decision adds momentum to a national campaign by gay rights advocates recognize and establish equal rights for gay men and lesbians, including a right for same-gender couples to marry.
The New Mexico Supreme Court did not seek to answer the broader issue of whether there is a fundamental right to marry that applies to same-sex couples. Instead, it confined its analysis to the guarantees of equal treatment and equal protection within the state constitution.
The court addressed “whether the State of New Mexico may decline to recognize civil marriages between same-gender couples and therefore deprive them of the rights, protections, and responsibilities available to opposite-gender married couples,” Justice Chavez wrote in the 31-page decision.
The justices brushed aside arguments by same-sex marriage opponents. Opponents had said that marriage laws applied only to heterosexual couples because the statutes were intended to foster responsible procreation and responsible rearing of children by their natural parents. They also argued that expanding marriage to include same-sex unions would deinstitutionalize marriage.
The justices rejected all three rationales. “Procreation has never been a condition of marriage under New Mexico law, as evidenced by the fact that the aged, the infertile, and those who choose not to have children are not precluded from marrying,” the court said.
The justices dismissed the deinstitutionalization suggestion as “nothing more than an argument to maintain only opposite-gender marriages.”
“We conclude that the purpose of New Mexico marriage laws is to bring stability and order to the legal relationship of committed couples by defining their rights and responsibilities as to one another, their children if they choose to raise children together, and their property,” Chavez said.
He added: “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.”
The justices said their decision would not interfere with religious freedom because no religious organization or clergy “will be required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs.”
The court said it would decline to formally strike down New Mexico’s marriage laws. Instead, the justices declared that henceforth references to “civil marriage” in state statutes “shall be construed to mean the voluntary union of two persons to the exclusion of all others.”
“All rights, protections, and responsibilities that result from the marital relationship shall apply equally to both same-gender and opposite-gender married couples,” Chavez wrote.
The court also ordered county clerks to amend applications for marriage licenses to use gender-neutral language.
The case stems from a groundswell of protest and counter protest over the state’s refusal to issue marriages licenses to same-sex couples. A group of six same-sex couples sued to challenge their exclusion from marriage under New Mexico law.
In August, two months after the US Supreme Court declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, the Dona Ana County Clerk began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Eventually seven other clerks followed suit.
Soon the issue was in court and bloomed into statewide litigation and a raging debate over whether same-sex couples should continue to be excluded from marriage in New Mexico.
Several judges ruled in favor of same-sex couples and the case quickly found its way to the state high court, where the justices heard argument on Oct. 23.
In addition to the legal implications of the decision, the high court ruling is important to the hundreds of same-sex couples who obtained licenses and were married earlier this year under uncertain legal authority.
“This truly is a historic and joyful day for New Mexico,” Laura Schauer Ives, legal director of ACLU-NM, said in a statement.
“As a state, we have always strived to treat all families with dignity and respect, and today’s decision allowing loving, committed same-sex couples to marry continues that tradition,” she said. “The more than 1,000 same-sex couples who have already married in New Mexico can now rest certain knowing their marriages will be recognized and respected by our state.”
Thalia Zepatos of the national group Freedom to Marry said the high court ruling would allow same-sex married couples in the state to “take a deep breath and realize their marriages are now fully respected.”
“From this day forward, we know that every additional wedding will show that families are helped and no one is harmed when gay couples are free to marry,” Ms. Zepatos said.