December 20, 2013
October 24, 2013
September 12, 2013
Ellins stunned New Mexico last month when the county clerk decided to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But even he was shocked by the lack of public outrage or protest to his decision, which set off a chain reaction that has for all practical purposes made gay marriage legal in the state.
The only crowds that gathered outside his Dona Ana County office were gay couples wanting to marry. The state's top politicians stayed neutral. New Mexico's three Catholic bishops said it was a matter for lawmakers. And an evangelical mega-church in the state's largest city was mum.
"I have gotten some fairly nasty religious-related telephone message," Ellins said. "But generally speaking, I am surprised by the relatively muted response from those who clearly disagree."
Experts and gay rights advocates say the relative lack of an uproar is a sign of how quickly public opinion has turned on the issue.
"If this had happened five years ago, there would have been a public outcry," said Andrew Cherlin, an expert on sociology of families and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. "If it had happened two to three years ago, there would have been public concern ... It's as if the dam broke quickly."
Gay marriage opponents, however, say residents of the mostly rural state are too busy taking care of their families to worry about organized protests. Instead, they are looking to their leaders to take action against the "lawbreakers," said state Sen. Sen. William Sharer, a Farmington Republican, who is leading a group of opponents suing to block Ellins.
"The reality is the other side built an army and trained an army before they broke the law and our side wasn't ready to fight," he said.
Perhaps one of the biggest turns has been in the Catholic Church, whose bishops historically have issued strong condemnations of same-sex marriage laws. About 25 percentage of the state's population is Catholic, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
New Mexico's three bishops issued a statement reiterating their belief that marriage is a unique institution between a man and a woman, saying Ellins' action was "a significant matter that affects society at large and as such is one that is best decided through the legislative branch of government."
Andrew Chesnut, a Catholic scholar at Virginia Commonwealth University, said he believes the bishops were following the lead of Pope Francis, who despite fervent opposition to same-sex marriage while archbishop in Argentina has now "been mostly mute on this subject."
The last time the state was embroiled in the gay marriage issue was in 2004, when then-Sandoval County Clerk Victoria Dunlap began to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The state's attorney general at the time, a Democrat, ordered her to stop and she didn't run for re-election.
New Mexico is just one of two states without laws explicitly legalizing or banning same-sex marriage.
Because of that Ellins, a lawyer, said he began looking closely at state laws after several lawsuits were filed this year seeking to force county clerks in Santa Fe and the state's largest county, Bernalillo, to issue the licenses. Seeing that the legal process was doomed to drag on, he said, "I said, 'Enough is enough. It's time to move forward.'"
Unlike 2004, the Democratic attorney general made no attempt to intervene this time. When asked for comment, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said it is a matter that should be decided by voters.
A week later, a state district judge, in Albuquerque ruled same-sex marriage was legal. Shortly thereafter, several other county clerks also began issuing licenses. At the request of county clerks, the Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing next month to decide if same-sex marriage is legal under the state's constitution.
One billboard opposing same-sex marriage was spotted recently at an evangelical church in Espanola. But the Catholic Church has said little beyond one statement after Ellins began issuing licenses.
Chestnut said the response of church officials in New Mexico isn't all that surprising, given that places around the world with sizeable Catholic populations — such as countries in Latin America — have led the way on gay marriage. Likewise, he said, Hispanics in the U.S. tend to be more approving of same-sex marriage than the overall population.
Allen Sanchez, spokesman for the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, denied a shift or softening in the church's position. And he pointed to the pope's recent call for compassion and tolerance for gays.
The difference to the response and lack of public action in New Mexico, he said, "is the difference between legislative and legal strategy. Had this been up for a legislative vote, you would have seen a much different process.”
By JERI CLAUSING
September 9, 2013
August 22, 2013
Dona Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins said his office had provided 35 licenses to same-sex couples compared to four or five given on an average day to heterosexual couples.
"It's a happy office today. Lots of happy people," he said. "One of the first couples that came in today said they had been waiting 31 years. Another couple says they've been waiting 43 years. It's time to stop waiting."
Jeff Williams, a public information officer in the county's government and a reverend with Universal Life Church, said he was marrying same-sex couples all day long while wearing his rainbow-colored tie.
Outside the courthouse, television reporters were busy interviewing the people getting married and there was no sign of any protesters.
Ellins said he had carefully read state laws and concluded the "state's marriage statutes are gender neutral and do not expressly prohibit Dona Ana County from issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples."
Later in the day, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King said he had no plans to challenge the move by Ellins or another other county clerks who might allow the practice.
Ellins said he had been considering issuing the licenses since June, when King released a position paper saying state laws don't allow same-sex marriage. King had asked county clerks to hold off on issuing licenses, even though he believes the laws are unconstitutional.
Ellins, however, said "any further denial of marriage licenses to these couples violates the United States and New Mexico Constitution and the New Mexico Human Rights Act."
"I see no reason to make committed couples in Dona Ana County wait another minute to marry," he added in his statement.
King said Wednesday that "we feel like our position that the law is unconstitutional presents a barrier to us from bringing any action."
Still, he warned that marriage licenses issued by county clerks could become invalid if the state Supreme Court later rules that same-sex marriage is not allowed.
County and city officials around the country have taken it upon themselves in recent years to issue same-sex licenses, with one of the first and most highly publicized cases in San Francisco in 2004.
The city issued the licenses for about a month before being ordered by courts to stop. The marriages were eventually invalidated. But gay marriage is now legal in that state.
Dona Ana County became the first county in New Mexico to actively issue same-sex licenses since a Sandoval County clerk issued 64 licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. Then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid soon declared the licenses were invalid and a court later ordered the clerk to stop.
Ullman and her longtime partner, Carrie Hamblen, 45, were among the same sex couples to receive marriage licenses on Wednesday in Las Cruces.
"People started clapping as soon as we walked in," Ullman said. "And more are coming from Albuquerque trying to make it here by this afternoon."
On Tuesday, a same-sex couple from Santa Fe asked the New Mexico Supreme Court to streamline the handling of lawsuits seeking to legalize gay marriage in the state.
State Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, a lawyer who represents the couple, said the goal is to get a quick lower court decision and clear the way for an expedited ruling by the state's highest court.
The justices were being asked to consolidate all cases involving the issue and assign a district court judge in Santa Fe, who would issue a ruling that would go directly to the state Supreme Court for review.
Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar said she does not plan on issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of pending lawsuits.
"I believe it's in the right place — the courts," Salazar said.
Couples in Bernalillo County — the state's largest county and the location of Albuquerque — also are part of a lawsuit seeking to have same-sex marriage recognized in that county.
Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver said she was conferring with attorneys but not planning to follow Dona Ana County.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed an emergency request on Wednesday with the state's Second Judicial District Court to allow two women in Pojoaque, Jen Roper and Angelique Neuman, to legally marry immediately in Santa Fe County. The group said Jen Roper is not expected to live long.
Writers Barry Massey in Santa Fe and Juan Carlos Llorca in Las Cruces
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