New Mexico's Supreme Court determined that same-sex marriages in the state are legal under current state law, making the state the 17th to legalize gay marriage. In a unanimous decision, the state's high court found that the New Mexico constitution prohibits the denial of same-sex couples in the state the right to marry. The decision clarifies New Mexico's marriage laws, which are uniquely ambiguous: it is the only U.S. state with marriage laws that neither explicitly affirm or deny same-sex marriage.
In recent months, several New Mexico counties began to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, citing the ambiguity of those laws. Eventually, the Supreme Court was asked to clarify the policy state-wide. Addressing the concerns of religious groups in the state who protested the expansion of same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court wrote:
Our analysis does not and cannot depend on religious doctrine without violating the Constitution...Instead we must depend upon legal principles to analyze the statutory and constitutional bases for depriving same-gender couples from entering into a purely secular civil marriage and securing the accompanying rights, protections, and responsibilities of New Mexico laws.
The decision cites an equal protection clause in the state constitution, which prohibits discrimination against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation. "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 high court wrote. In an implicit reference to a recent federal Supreme Court decision that opened up federal marriage benefits to legally-married same-sex couples, the New Mexico Supreme Court also notes that federal benefits for about 1,400 married same-sex couples in the state were in something of a legal limbo, because there was no clear state-wide interpretation of the marriage laws there.
The legal fight for marriage equality in New Mexico took off when a single clerk in one state county began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples over the summer. Until then, the state functioned as if its laws prohibited the issuing of same-sex marriage licenses, although the state generally recognized legal same-sex marriages performed out of state. A few other counties voluntarily followed suit, while still others were ordered to issue same-sex marriage certificates through the courts.
The full order is below. We'll update with more as this story develops.