The New Mexico Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in the state Thursday, making New Mexico the nation's first Southwest state to legalize marriage equality.
In a unanimous decision, the state's highest court ruled 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."
"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," the justices continued, dismissing arguments made by same-sex marriage opponents, including those connecting the state's marriage laws to a governmental interest in childrearing.
"Therefore, barring individuals from marrying and depriving them of the rights, protections, and responsibilities of civil marriage solely because of their sexual orientation violates the Equal Protection Clause under Article II, Section 18 of the New Mexico Constitution," the decision states.
The ruling comes after six same-sex couples, represented by the ACLU of New Mexico, the national ACLU, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), the law firm of Sutin, Thayer & Browne APC, and New Mexico attorneys Maureen Sanders, N. Lynn Perls and J. Kate Girard, filed a lawsuit in March seeking the right to marry. Oral arguments were heard in October.
New Mexico was the only state in the nation that did not recognize nor prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages, which had led to a long history of challenges to New Mexico's ambiguous marriage laws. That's because of a measure adopted by the state in 1973 known as the Equal Rights Amendment, which removed gender references from countless state statues — including marriage law. Over the summer, eight of the state's 33 counties began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. According to Laura Schauer Ives, ACLU-NM legal director, more than 1,000 same-sex couples have already been married in the state and with today's ruling, those marriages will remain valid.
New Mexico becomes the 17th state, plus D.C., to legalize marriage equality. In 2013 alone, same-sex marriage has been legalized in Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Hawaii and Illinois (though the Illinois law will not take full effect until June 2014).
Although another historic win for marriage-equality supporters, there remains a possibility that the ruling could be challenged by the state Legislature. According to Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, state lawmakers could still send a constitutional amendment to the ballot to present to voters.
"There are certainly some opponents in the legislature but it's too early to tell whether they're going to mount a serious push or not. Both branches are controlled by Democrats," Solomon wrote in an email, noting that New Mexico Unites for Marriage, along with a number of national and local partners, including Freedom to Marry, have been preparing to fight an amendment effort should one arise.
[Photo: Justices of the New Mexico Supreme Court. Credit: New Mexico Supreme Court.]