Record Staff Writer
Bernalillo County today is expected to become the third, and most populous, county in New Mexico to start issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
The county clerk was ordered by State District Judge Alan Malott Monday to begin issuing the licenses after he declared the state’s constitution prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Clerks around the state are uncertain about whether the latest court ruling requires them to begin licensing gay couples. Chaves County, however, will not issue the licenses until state law changes or the state Supreme Court issues a directive.
“We’re not going to do it as long as possible,” Chaves County Clerk Dave Kunko said. “It is my understanding, after talking to the county attorney, it doesn’t apply to the whole state at this point.”
Chaves County-area elected officials agreed with Kunko.
“The reckless actions of this judge acting on personal opinion and ignoring legislative procedure threatens serious confusion, frustration, and pain for those who are being led to believe that the law has changed,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM.
Assistant Attorney General Scott Fugua told the Associated Press that clerks outside Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties were not bound to follow the decision. AG Gary King said last week he would not take any action against Ellins, but his position was that the current state law was unconstitutional.
State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Dist. 32, said the issue needed to be decided at the state Supreme Court.
“As it stands right now, state law is clear that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Pirtle said. “Regardless of what side of the issue you’re on, I really believe the state Supreme Court should weigh in on this issue.”
Some Republican legislators were against what they viewed as overstepping state law.
“I do believe everybody is created equal, but we still have laws,” said state Rep. Candy Ezzelle, R-Roswell. “These clerks have taken it upon themselves to bypass the legislative process. What is the purpose of having the legislature … if they are instituting the rules as they want to? I was raised believing in the Bible, and what the Bible says is a marriage is between one man and one woman.”
One group of Republican legislators planned to file a lawsuit to stop clerks in other counties from issuing same-sex licenses.
Sen. Bill Sharer of Farmington said a legal team is reviewing how to “stop the usurping of the legislative function by some district court judges in regards to marriage in the state,” and the lawless actions of the Dona Ana County clerk.
“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.
The gay marriage debate erupted in New Mexico beginning last Wednesday, when Dona Ana Clerk Lynn Ellins started issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Ellins said that by Friday, 137 couples from around the state and Texas picked up a license.
Following Dona Ana’s action, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of five lesbian couples, including a Bernalillo couple that same day, asking for an emergency ruling on the matter. The suit asked the court to legitimize the marriages of the plaintiffs.
Since Dona Ana’s move, Santa Fe County has also been court-ordered to issue the licenses.
Shawnee Hansen-Chavarria and Renee Chavarria, of Artesia, drove to Las Cruces last Thursday after same-sex licenses became available.
“We were really excited and we really wanted to get it done,” Hansen-Chavarria said.
The couple was accompanied by two witnesses, and didn’t plan on getting married. However, a woman was waiting in the lobby and offered to perform the ceremony on the spot.
The two were married in Iowa nearly four years ago, but wanted to officially tie the knot at home, they said.
“It just feels more official in our home state,” Hansen-Chavarria said. “It was surreal being in there and being able to tell them what we wanted, and having them give it to us with no hesitation at all, whatsoever.”
Hansen-Chavarria said gay marriage licensing in New Mexico is “awesome.”
“It’s just a wonderful thing to be a part of this,” she said. “It’s something that’s due for us.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.