Controversy And Confusion Grow In New Mexico Over Gay Marriage

A couple who had been denied a marriage license in a northern New Mexico county last week were able to get it on Wednesday.

The Los Alamos County clerk's office issued a marriage license to the lesbian couple shortly after a state district judge upheld a decision requiring that to happen.

Janet Newton and Maria Thibodeau were denied a license last week and filed a lawsuit that led to a ruling by District Court Judge Sheri Raphaelson that same-sex couples are entitled to be married in New Mexico.

The county became the eighth in the state to clear the way for same-sex couples to be married.

Los Alamos County Clerk Sharon Stover went to court Wednesday to defend her decision to deny the couple a license, but the judge ruled against the clerk.

"Anytime two people get to exercise their freedom for their first time, that's important. That's what is important to our clients," Brian Egolf, a Democratic state legislator and Santa Fe lawyer for the couple, said after the court hearing.

In one county, called Dona Ana, a group of Republican lawmakers have gone to court to try to stop the county clerk from continuing to grant licenses.

The courts have become a battleground over gay marriage in New Mexico because the Democratic-controlled Legislature hasn't resolved the issue. A proposal by Egolf for a constitutional amendment to legalize gay marriage failed in this year's legislative session. Lawmakers previously have turned down measures to allow domestic partnerships for same-sex couples and to ban gay marriage.

State law doesn't explicitly prohibit or authorize gay marriage. State statutes contain references to "husband" and "wife," and include a marriage license application that has sections for male and female applicants. Stover, a Republican, has said she relied on those provisions in denying a marriage license to the lesbian couple.

Stover said after the court hearing that no decision has been made on whether to appeal Raphaelson's decision, which could provide a way for the gay marriage dispute to be resolved by the state's highest court. Rulings by district judges do not apply statewide unlike a decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Before Wednesday's decision, six of the state's 33 counties were issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and a seventh had announced plans to start granting licenses next week.

The clerk in Dona Ana County, the state's second most populous, led the way on Aug. 21 by acting independently — without a court order — to begin handing out marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Since then, a series of lawsuits have been filed by gay rights advocates and two county clerks decided on their own to allow same-sex couples to be married.

A group of Republican lawmakers have gone to court to try to stop the Dona Ana County clerk from continuing to grant licenses.

In hopes of getting a uniform statewide ruling on gay marriage from the Supreme Court, an association representing county clerks statewide — Democrats and Republicans — plans to appeal an Albuquerque judge's ruling last week that said it was unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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