by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Marriage equality is being achieved in New Mexico, one county at a time.
On August 27, District Judge Jeff McElroy ruled that Taos County Clerk Anna Martinez must issue a marriage license to a Gay couple or present a legal argument why she should not.
The Taos suit was brought by Dale Schuette and Reg Stark, who were turned away when they applied for a marriage license at the clerk's office on August 26.
McElroy said Schuette and Stark had legal standing to marry in Taos County but were only denied a license due to their gender. The judge added that New Mexico law did not prohibit the couple from marrying.
Martínez said she did not intend to challenge the ruling, and would begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples on August 28.
DYING WOMAN A CATALYST
The day before McElroy's ruling, District Judge Alan Malott also ruled that New Mexico law does not bar Gay and Lesbian couples from marrying, and ordered Santa Fe and Bernalillo Counties to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Malott was hearing a case involving a dying woman who asked that her death certificate recognize her long-time partnership with another woman. A short hearing ensued, and according to AP reports nobody objected to her request.
The judge therefore granted her petition, but went on to rule in five other cases, stating explicitly that New Mexico cannot block same-sex marriages because doing so would violate state laws against discrimination on the basis of sex.
Malott then ordered the two counties to issue marriage licenses to all couples who applied for them.
RULING SURPRISES ACTIVISTS
'We were stunned and amazed,' ACLU attorney Laura Schauer Ives said, about the judge's ruling. The couples were represented by ACLU, NCLR (National center for Lesbian Rights), and two local private law firms.
'This is a great day to be a resident of New Mexico,' ACLU New Mexico executive director Peter Simonson said in a statement. 'Our state is now on the brink of joining the growing list of states who live and honor the values of family, liberty, and love. Every family in this state is made richer by this step toward justice for all.'
Bernalillo County began issuing licenses the next day, August 27. About 100 couples reportedly lined up in Albuquerque, the Bernalillo County seat, to get licenses.
Patricia Catlett, a 61-year-old graphic designer from Albuquerque, and her partner of 25 years, Karen Schmiege, a 69-year-old retired librarian, were the first to get their license in Bernalillo County.
'I am so excited, I can't stand it,' Schmiege said as they signed their papers.
CLERK HAPPY TO COMPLY
Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Oliver said she was happy the judge ordered her to issue the licenses. She said she had long wanted to, but felt her hands were tied.
San Miguel and Valencia counties also began issuing licenses to same-sex couples on August 27. San Miguel County Clerk Melanie Rivera has confirmed that she will issue new gender-neutral marriage licenses.
Couples who do not want to wait can receive a license immediately, and Rivera will make the changes to the old forms by hand, she said.
Santa Fe County started issuing licenses to same-sex couples on August 23 after a judge there ordered the county clerk to do so. On August 21, the Dona Ana County Clerk starting issuing licenses to Gay and Lesbian couples after he determined state law did not prohibit it.
Despite the actions by New Mexico's bigger counties, most clerks in the state's rural counties said they were not changing their policies.
Los Alamos County Clerk Sharon Stover and Sandoval County Clerk Eileen Garbagni told The New Mexican they would not be issuing licenses to same-sex couples until they receive a court order.
But Garbagni added, 'I'm sure eventually I'll be doing it.'
'Not yet,' Union County Clerk Mary Lou Harkin told the Associated Press. 'We've had a couple calls & but I am going to hold off for now, until I get a court order or other direction.'
OPPONENTS PLAN SUIT
Meanwhile, a group of Republican legislators is planning to file a lawsuit to stop clerks from issuing licenses to same-sex couples.
One of those lawmakers, Sen. William Sharer of Farmington, said it is up to the state legislature, with the consent of the governor, to make laws - not county clerks or district judges.
'It is inexplicable how a district court just today discovered a new definition of marriage in our laws, when our marriage law has not been changed in over a century,' Sharer said.
Paul Becht, the Albuquerque lawyer for the GOP legislators, said it's uncertain when and where their lawsuit will be filed. With more counties starting to issue licenses, Becht said, he's trying to determine the best venue for a suit, 'so we're not getting scattered results all over the place.'
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