Dozens of gay and lesbian couples descended on rural Bernalillo, N.M., to tie the knot Friday following a county clerk's surprise decision to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But hours after the marriages began, New Mexico attorney general Patricia Madrid declared the licenses invalid.
Madrid's opinion came in a letter to state senator Timothy Jennings, who had sought the legal advice after Sandoval County began handing out licenses Friday morning. "Until the laws are changed through the legislative process or declared unconstitutional by the judicial process, the statutes limit marriage in New Mexico to a man and a woman," wrote Madrid, a Democrat. "Thus in my judgment, no county clerk should issue a marriage license to same-sex couples because those licenses would be invalid under current law."
Madrid's opinion at least temporarily halted the clerk from issuing any additional licenses. A crowd outside the office reacted with boos and shouts while a deputy clerk read the attorney general's legal advice. "This is not OK. We deserve rights," shouted Carolyn Ford, angrily pointing a finger while holding a bouquet of red and white roses in her hand. She and her partner, who have been together for 10 years, got their application for a license earlier Friday and had completed a ceremony. They were in line to receive their license when county officials made the announcement.
Sandoval County clerk Victoria Dunlap had set the unusual day in motion on Thursday with her decision to grant the licenses. "It's going to be across the country, and so we wanted to be ahead of the curve," Dunlap said. By mid afternoon a line snaked outside the clerk's office, housed in the county courthouse. About 100 people had requested applications, and many of those had been turned back in, stamped, and recorded, the clerk's office said.
Outside, two preachers held impromptu ceremonies near the main drag of the usually sleepy village along the Rio Grande. "There has been some backlash, but this has been more positive, from what I hear. They're happy, crying, joyful," Dunlap said. Among the first to get their license were a lesbian couple who got married in a brief ceremony. "When we heard the news this morning, we knew we couldn't wait. We had to come down here," Jenifer Albright said after she and Anne Schultz, 34, both of Albuquerque, exchanged vows in front of the courthouse.
James Walker and Michael Palmer took extended lunch breaks from work for a moment they said they'd waited 26 years for. The men were married in Toronto last year, but the union wasn't acknowledged in the United States. Walker said a marriage certificate from Sandoval County "would give us a lot of rights and benefits that have been denied us as a couple, including the rights associated with property ownership and the rights associated with medical decisions."
Dunlap, a Republican, said she was unaware of any law prohibiting licenses from being issued for same-sex couples. She sought an opinion from her county attorney after getting a call earlier this week from someone asking about same-sex ceremonies. "This has nothing to do with politics or morals," she told the Albuquerque Journal. "If there are no legal grounds that say this should be prohibited, I can't withhold it.... This office won't say no until shown it's not permissible."
She said county attorney David Mathews told her that New Mexico law is unclear on the issue.
Republican state senator Steve Komadina criticized Dunlap's decision to set the process in motion before getting a legal opinion from Madrid. "I feel badly that action was taken before an answer was obtained," Komadina said. "That was very irresponsible and will cause heartache to people on all sides of the question."
Gov. Bill Richardson, a prominent Democrat who has served as United Nations ambassador and who has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate this year, said he is opposed to same-sex marriage. "The governor has always been a champion for human rights. He supports equal rights and opposes all forms of discrimination. However, he is opposed to same-sex marriage," said Marsha Catron, a Richardson spokeswoman.
To get an application, would-be married couples had to show up with a photo identification, Social Security card, and $25 to receive an application. In getting their stamped licenses, they were handed pink "newlywed bags" with coupons and other items. On Thursday, Mathews said he was concerned that refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples could open the county to legal liability. State law defines marriage as a civil contract between contracting parties but does not mention gender. The only law that mentions gender is a 1961 statute that created the form used for marriage licenses and which asks for information about the male and female applicants. But the Equal Rights Act of 1973 outlaws discrimination based on sex, Mathews said. Mathews said he did not want Sandoval County to become a test case for same-sex marriage in New Mexico and that the county does not have a position on the issue. "This is a statewide issue, and we need some guidance," he said.
Clerks in nearby Santa Fe and Bernalillo counties said they would not issue same-sex marriage licenses. "My position is, I took an oath to uphold the law, not change the law," said Rebecca Bustamante, Santa Fe County clerk. "I wouldn't do it, because I just don't think I can." Mary Herrera, Bernalillo County clerk, said she has no plans to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She cited the 1961 law.